Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Where do we go from here?

I have just finished the final (for not, at least) installment in the adult forum that I have led for five weeks entitled “Making Disciples by Being Disciples: Do we Mean It?” I have picked up on the “mission statement” developed in one of those “long-range planning” exercises that are so popular among organizations. (Ours, in an experience not so very different from many others’, was so successful that when I told the pastor, who was not our pastor when we developed that motto, the title of my series, he said, “I’ve heard that somewhere.”)

I began by complaining about congregational efforts to develop a “mission statement,” believing as I do that the mission of congregations and of the entire church bas been set by Our Lord (“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”). I then went on to lead an examination of some “call narratives”, in which Jesus calls disciples, some of the Sermon on the Mount, and some of Jesus’ actions (as opposed to words) to try to set the stage for a discussion of “discipleship” as obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus.

I had a wonderful time doing this. Except for the five weeks I “taught” about the Ten Commandments, I have not led an adult forum that looks very closely at the Bible. Here I tried to emulate Bonhoeffer by looking at the Sermon on the Mount as the mandate for Christian life, interspersing a simple reading of the Sermon with consideration of its implications. I really got into it.

But today was time for discussion. (In my defense, I did not lecture the entire time. I opened the time to discussion of the Biblical witness. But, to be accurate, it was a “leading” examination. But what do you expect from a lawyer?) And I was impressed that what I have been talking about matters to many members of my congregation. (For one thing, we went far beyond the half-hour I thought we’d take up, to filling an hour, before I called time and sent them home.)

There was a serious inquiry into what we can do to make what we have been talking about a reality. And I am pleased beyond measure that that came up. One person wanted us to lay out a “strategy” for making discipleship a reality; one wanted to set up “discipleship groups” to meet in homes to discuss relevant issues; one wondered about how to deal with the “politics” in “church politics.” I think that this could represent a break-through, if I (and I suppose others similarly “charged”) will simply put out the time to get it done.

One person (echoing my sentiments, which he had not heard me utter) described the decline (at least among mainline Christian congregations) in any notion of “discernment.” How do we know the will of God in our present situation? We can’t just open the Bible and pick a verse and then go do it, can we? (Rhetorical Question! Of course not, in most cases.) But how do we avoid the Constantinian “heresy” (not my phrase, but one with which I resonate) which fundamentally gives over to the civic authority the “place” of deciding issues of our civic life and derogates the life of faith to a “place” within the empire. And related to that, are we as the Church supposed to limit our “influence” on the civic structures to that of individuals’ addressing their representatives? In a riff on the Lutheran notion (though not unique to us) of “two kingdoms,” are we to refrain from mixing “Church” and “state”?

I must admit (Icelandic Lutherans, I think, do not spend much time on their feelings) to a feeling of satisfaction that whatever it was that I set before these people keyed in on concerns that they have. Many of the members of my congregation have a highly developed sense that to be a Christian means living as one; that is, that “Christianity” is not a religion, but is rather a way of living. They hunger and thirst for direction. (I lament that we no longer worship with our godson, because his parents found our parish lacking in discourse – at least, preaching – in how to live the life of faith.)

A couple of us are talking about a “study/discipleship” group in the fall to focus on “consumerism” and how to combat it from a Christian perspective. This might be a beginning. The risk is that we pick an easy target, one many of us are already keyed into. But is that so bad? If we read up on the issue, in order to figure out what it is and whether it’s bad, and (if so) why it’s bad and how to change, and then try change ourselves and to influence our fellow-Christians in how to opt out of the false worship of material goods – can anything be bad about that (except for a kind of self-righteousness that shows itself in wearing old shoes)? And if, at the same time, another group is all keyed up about militarism and related issues – must we be worried that we are on different track? For myself, I am simply delighted that, in some way, people feel “empowered” and “permitted” to get serious about issues of faith.

I think, on the basis of the example and teaching of my hero Bill Cavanaugh, that to “instantiate” (NOT his word) the Gospel imperative is a very important thing. Bill has taught me, and I hope to teach others, to see in the sacraments of the Church a new way of being, a new reality – one based in God, not in gods. I’m impressed with the sincerity of people who want to do this.

The final question, however, is where this goes for the “greater Church”: The people who gather to work through issues such as those I’ve raised represent a small minority of the Church population. What do we do to expand this “inquiry” (as we termed it when I was with the Great Books Foundation, in Chicago)?

I almost spoke my mind on that question on Sunday, though I wasn’t “politically incorrect” enough to do so. I muttered something about needing leadership “from the top.” I also noted that I thought it most perplexing that such a low percentage of our parish’s adults participate in adult-education events. Why is it, I disingenuously asked, that so few of our adult members feel the need for any additional education in the faith? (Give a course in wine-tasting, though, and you’ll have an oversubscription problem.) Are we singularly blessed with a membership that has it all worked out? Or do we need someone to kick the membership in the rump and remind us of our need (if not our responsibility) to penetrate into the “faith”?

It is amazing to me that Bonhoeffer was willing to lay down his life for Christ’s Church; he must have driven to distraction the apostasy in his day and situation. I can hardly decry such problems as he faced. Nevertheless, there is abroad in the Church, I think, a theology of cheap grace that is sapping the Church of vitality and of the critical edge that helps her to distinguish real issues from phony ones. What might it take to get a rise out of this nearly moribund Body of Christ?


Anonymous said...

You wrote: "A couple of us are talking about a 'study/discipleship' group in the fall to focus on 'consumerism'..."

How about this book to guide such a group. It's designed as a 12-part study of Christian ethics and consumerism:

Simpler Living, Compassional Life: A Christian Perspective
Michael Schut, editor
c 1999 by Earth Ministry
ISBN 1-889108-62-6

Maurice Frontz said...

Dwight, at least your congregation has the catechumenate - that in itself is a beginning, maybe even "the" beginning to a witnessing church in this day...

What always blows my mind about Bonhoeffer is how utterly alone he was. The Confessing Church was a real disappointment to him. His students did not always understand him or follow his course of action, yet he always maintained contact with them. His faith was unquestioningly in Jesus, not in the results he was getting or not getting...

Dwight P. said...

Yes! Bonhoeffer must have felt very much isolated -- although he did have a circle of loyal friends and disciples. Eberhard Bethge seems always to have been available. (How did he avoid Nazi retribution, I wonder.) I need to read a biography of him to help me understand how he got to such a situation. After all, he was not raised in the Church, really: No one in the family or even extended family seemed particularly acute about their faith -- despite the presence of a grandfather or great-grandfather who was a pastor. How did he feel called away from "culture protestantism"?


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