Archive for February, 2012

Theological Education and Tomorrow’s Church (part 3)

by   |  02.17.12  |  Uncategorized

The previous sections of this discussion emerged from my reflections on the future of theological education in Churches of Christ, which is deeply bound up with what we imagine the future of this part of Christianity to be.  Educating young men and women – the Millennials along with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers entering second and third careers – will look different in the future because of the church’s needs will look different.  But different how?  What do we need to innovate, and what to conserve?  How do we help men and women cultivate the imagination necessary for bearers of God’s good tidings in our time?

Let me suggest a few things for discussion.

Rule # 1: Self-awareness is good.

Over the past half century, Churches of Christ have gone through a number of phases, not everywhere and not all at once, but still in fairly recognizable ways.  We shifted from a confessional group that defined itself by a fairly small set of doctrinal distinctives (some biblically rich and some not) to a group more focused on self-help and consumerist approaches.  Sermons changed from “God’s views of appropriate music in worship” to “10 steps to a better family life.”  And since the shift was largely driven by Baby Boomers, the emphasis on programming, media, popular music, and other practices that made us less different from the dominant culture were all the rage.  Some of that change was helpful, some was inevitable, and some is worth keeping.  Much of it, however, was pretty lightweight stuff, and the processes of change sometimes expended a huge amount of energy that left congregations incapacitated for further spiritual growth and addicted to finding the next cool gimmick, when they weren’t blown apart completely.  Surely it is time that those of us in progressive churches acknowledged at least some of these problems.  Sectarian legalism sometimes – too often – has given way to a cheap grace that glibly demands that God forgive us no matter how uncommitted we are.

Of course, it is easy to overstate the problems, and no one could reasonably want to return to the sectarian past.  Or, to put things much more carefully, the truth is that the Holy Spirit worked to enable men and women to live Christian lives both during the times we want to forget and the times we spent forgetting them (forgetting them over and over, ironically – but that’s another story).   Christian men and women in our churches have done extraordinarily good and gracious things over and over regardless of the dominant ambience of our congregational lives.   So maybe the first thing we should say about our identity – the first step in self-awareness – is that we have been and are a blessed people through whom God has helped many others.  We can celebrate that, in spite of our very real flaws.

Rule # 2: It’s not about programs.

It is tempting in our environment of change to fall back on learned behavior, and for churches that means seeking the next dramatic program.  Millennials not part of your church?  No problem!  We’ll create a program that will bring them in.

The problem with such an approach, however, is that it assumes that human beings are just out there waiting for us to market to them, if only we can do it correctly, but that once the marketing has taken effect, we can just turn it off and convert folks to a lifestyle of commitment impervious to other marketing messages.  As many Baby Boomer churches in the Willow Creek mold have learned, however, the outreach program that soft-pedals commitment does not naturally lead to a Christian lifestyle unless significant re-messaging happens.  But in that process, the risk of the bait and switch approach is high.  In other words, we risk treating human beings as something less than that title would deserve.  Our methods do not honor people as God’s creation sufficiently well.

For Millennials, in particular, such an approach is highly unlikely to work because this is a generation that is (1) highly sophisticated in its consumption of media messages; (2) fairly cynical about the motives of powerful people trying to sell them something; (3) interested, however, in genuine community and long-term service; and (4) significantly less familiar with Christianity than the Boomers were.  That is, we can no longer operate parasitically on prior generations of Christian experiences in the way that Baby Boomer churches did.  We have to start over.  And just launching programs without trying to launch community will not work.  In truth, it ought not to work because it demeans people and separates them from God, who calls us all into full humanness in imitation of the gracious autonomy of Jesus Christ.  These claims, if they are even close to being right, lead us to Rule 3.

Rule # 3: It’s about community.

I have been fascinated, like many others, with the Occupy Movement and its attempts at democratic, participatory decision-making.  My fascination comes in part because I am sympathetic with many of the movement’s desires and demands and because I think that, with all its problems, it has put its finger on something many Americans feel today.  Many of us, especially those just entering adulthood, feel radically disenchanted with the dominant culture’s construal of power, status, and wealth.  Interestingly, the mostly secular people involved in Occupy share some deep instincts that are pervasive in Scripture and front and center in the gospel message.  They believe that the economy exists for people, not people for the economy.  And they want to do something, somehow to bring about that healthier reality.  Shouldn’t churches be on board with that sentiment?  Surely the Jesus we preach and worship was, at least if you believe the Four Gospels.

So what to do?  How do we give our young people a stake in the church’s work as it lives into the mission of bearing good news?  Can we (1) make sure that our news really is good, (2) that is live-outable day to day, (3) that it includes a lifestyle of truth-speaking in love, and (4) that it is open to everyone, including the most vulnerable among us?  It would be hard to argue that most congregations look like community, but in even the most frozen, formalized, fractious churches there are tokens of God’s community because the Holy Spirit continues to act among us.  Can we not, then, build from what we have to something richer and more robust?  Has not God given us all we need to be what we need to be?  Yes, if we allow this to happen.

Unlike the artificial communities sometimes created by church programming, authentic Christian community cannot simply include people whose values, experiences, and expectations are just like mine.  Somewhere I read, “What thank have you, if you love those who love you?”  Christian community must include the vulnerable, the outcasts, the dysfunctional, the unsuccessful.  Otherwise, it is not Christian enough.  Of course, such community demands much harder work than the homogeneous units we often seek to create, but out of the struggle and joy of life together, we come closer to the God who created and loved us all.  Hence the next idea.

Rule # 4: It’s about God, who is for us.

Like many other American Christians, I have heard all my life the extraordinary text of St. Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”  Not an offer of cheap grace, the rhetorical question functions as a sort of invitation.  Do we not wish to be in the presence of the Almighty Creator who ordered the world in such a way that we could flourish within it, gave a history and a set of norms to a people so they could live freely, and triumphed over death itself by raising Jesus as the “firstfruits of those who sleep”?  Would it not be the case that, if such ideas are true, they would compel a radical alteration in my way of being with others?  And would not a community that resulted from such an idea, or rather, such an experience, spend much of its time seeking to be in God’s presence by pursuing the means of grace such as prayer, forgiveness, service, and so on?  Christian answers to these questions would surely lead us to rethink our ways of worshiping, serving, and sharing the gospel with others.

Yet the truth is that many of our congregations do anything but this.  When we speak of God at all we take refuge in easy clichés and, frankly, a sort of thinly disguised narcissism.  So, for example, Jeremiah’s great promise that God has not forgotten Israel (plural “you”) and will work to redeem a whole people devastated by foreign invasion, enslavement, and death so that it can find its place anew (Jeremiah 29:29) has become a pretty little plaque on a wall about God’s alleged provision of whatever we want whenever we want it (singular “you”).  Far from being just an innocent little bit of bad interpretation of the Bible,  is not this domestication of a powerful, but raw text, really just a travesty?  Do we really imagine that God has nothing better to do than provide us with the things we can easily provide for ourselves while we neglect to care for those among us who are vulnerable?  What Bible do we read?  What reality do we see around us?

As I write this, I see my own attempts to control God and feel keenly the “we” in the paragraph above.  There is no “I” vs. “you” here.  For all of us, can we let God be God, and ourselves be God’s servants, and thus the servants of each other?  Can the church be humble enough to speak on behalf of God rather than using God language as a warrant for doing what we wanted to do all along?  I hope so.  And I believe so.  Because God is for us, and even when we are against ourselves, as we often are, nothing can separate us from this God.  There is a future for our churches, if we let there be.  If we are humble enough, imaginative enough, and generous enough a new generation of leaders will arise among us who can help us seek the table of a generous God nurturing a generous people.

Please respond to these ruminations, scattered and imperfect as they are.  Let us reason together, so that our sins can be as white as snow!

Theological Education and Tomorrow’s Church (part 2)

by   |  02.06.12  |  Uncategorized

This is part 2 of 3.  Thank you for your comments to the first part of the essay.  I am grateful for the encouragement and look forward to the ongoing conversation!

The Theological Landscape Today

            But if the news is good, what precisely is it about?  To answer the question, let me step back to an event many of you remember because you were there.  In the summer of 1967, a new magazine was launched, Mission.  You know its history.  Some of you made it.  The impression one has in reading the early issues now is just how uncontroversial they seem, especially during the early years.  The academics and others who wrote it seemed to fit the basic theology of Churches of Christ rather well.  (I leave to one side cartoons of Nixon as a watch salesman on Fifth Avenue!)  Page 1 of the first number describes the journal’s three purposes as “to explore thoroughly the scriptures and their meaning,” “to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission,” and “to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”  One might object to the hermeneutics of translation (kernel and husk) implied by the statements or note that the world was hardly as homogeneous as the sentences imply, but, after all, journal prospectuses are not the usual venue for subtlety, and so we can overlook those faults, if they are faults.

The curious and revolutionary part of the statement is that it seems to assume that we do not yet know fully what the Bible teaches and that the world as we experience it requires serious interpretation.  Both of these assumptions would seem to be givens today, but of course they have not always been.  This is why, within two years of the launch of Mission, other Church of Christ leaders, also mostly academics, founded The Spiritual Sword.  Page 1 of the first number of that journal set its course (by which it still sails, alas) by noting “The church is faced with critical challenges,” and promising to “meet these challenges,” especially the “threat of Liberalism.”  Their “defense of the faith” would “meet a specific and immediate challenge with a direct counter thrust of truth.”  The language of “combat” (their word, not mine) pervades the journal, and in fact has until this day.  So much for solidarity!  And so much for reasoned discourse!

Now my goal here is not to stroll down memory lane, especially since it’s not even my own memory but a bit of history.  I was just getting out of diapers when Mission was founded and was being taught in 1969 to avoid sharp objects, spiritual swords or not.  My point is, rather, to note that we have for a long time had different approaches to theological education.  One sought to understand and engage the theological worlds of Scripture and whatever else we could manage, and the other believed itself to command Scripture and to be able to ignore all else, or perhaps better, to learn about it so as to convert it (rather as a general would know his enemy).  It should be obvious with which approach my sympathies lie.

If we are to take the first tack stated so well by Mission and by my own teachers, we must ask where we are today.  Only in this way can we “understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission,” and “provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”  This theological world differs very widely from that of the 1960s and 1970s, and the responses worked out then, I would argue, are almost completely irrelevant today.  It seems to me that three significant movements inform Christianity around the world today, albeit in many subforms.

The first is the critical reappropriation of tradition.  The second is the reinvigoration of structures, especially the congregation.  The third is renewed attention to spirituality.  These strands cut across denominational and even religious lines, and they are in large measure responses to the moves of two generations ago as well as the profound corruptions that secularization, and I would argue the birth of a form of capitalism utterly detached from its own social ends, has brought.  The theological models we worked out in the 1960s are ill prepared to deal with these movements, in my view, though we can do better.  Let me explain.

The Critical Reappropriation of Tradition.  Some of the most exciting work going on in theology today centers on the reclamation of the Christian tradition.  At some level, this is a reaction to the 1960s attempts at “modernization” and cultural accommodation to the secular city after the death of God.  Whether we are speaking of a generous orthodoxy, or critical realist reading strategies, or canonical theism, or the missional church, a major impetus to contemporary theology is the attempt to correct what is widely perceived as an excessive accommodation to one of several forms of modernity.  Thus we find a Sarah Coakley writing on the relationships between feminism and the Cappadocian notions of the Trinity or David Brown on the Bible and theological imagination or Nicholas Lash on hope after Marx, or whatever.  The various post-critical reappropriations of the Bible are part of this move, as we see in the work of scholars like Ellen Davis or, on the Jewish side, Jon Levenson.  But the task of reappropriation is much wider.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this move.  It is also hard to know how a tradition like ours that began with an attempt to cut through tradition (talk about a self-effacing strategy!) to find a pure Christianity in the words of the New Testament should respond.  To me, we should begin by acknowledging the utter failure of restorationism as some of us have conceived of it.  The belief of high modernism in its Protestant expression that one could peel away layers of accretions to find the pristine core simply has proven intellectually untenable and institutionally unsustainable.  Moreover, the focus on institutions and practices (a focus both conservative and liberal strands in the Stone-Campbell movement perpetuate) stripped of theological underpinnings has proven a serious error, not only because it ignores the interests of the Bible itself but because it seems to forget the role of the Bible as a trigger of the Christian imagination.  In other words, the restorationism we inherited is radically reductionistic.  It is based on a logical fallacy – the genetic fallacy – and it eliminates more than it preserves.  It is an acid that dissolves too much.

At the same time, it is possible to construe restorationism in different ways, perhaps even in the language of Alexander Campbell himself, who wrote in the Christian System (p. 110):

First. Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world, but the union and co-operation of Christians.

Second. Nothing is essential to the union of Christians, but the Apostles’ teaching or testimony.

Or does he [Campbell’s imagined interlocutor] choose to express the plan of the Self-Existent in other words? Then he may change the order, and say,

First. The testimony of the Apostles, is the only and all-sufficient means of uniting all Christians.

Second. The union of Christians with the Apostles’ testimony, is all-sufficient, and alone sufficient, to the conversion of the world.

Neither truth alone, nor union alone, is sufficient to subdue the unbelieving nations; but truth and union combined, are omnipotent. They are omnipotent, for God is in them and with them, and has consecrated and blessed them for this very purpose.

In any event, we need a serious discussion here.  Our goal must be to reimagine the ends of our movement.

The Reinvigoration of Structures.  One of the most important insights of the Stone-Campbell movement was its confidence in the local congregation and its belief that denominational structures, however light, should be tested by their ability to serve the local church in its most fundamental work.  Perhaps we can take this congregationalism too far, but the basic orientation to the local community seems well-placed.

At the same time, we cannot merely be content with considering how to maintain basically well-functioning congregations.  Rather, ours is a time of renewal.  The need for renewal and the reexamination of cherished beliefs and practices that renewal presupposes should point us to the shape and content of our theological curriculum, both in the congregation and in the school of theology serving the church.  Shrinking congregations that are often mono-racial and increasingly out of touch with their neighborhoods and the spiritual needs of younger people (who often have no stake in the congregation’s success or failure) pose a serious threat to the survival of our fellowship.  We need to be honest about that.  Projects of renewal that draw on the best of our past and deepen our vision of our future require vigorous leadership, the training of which is surely the task of our schools of theology.

Even more difficult will be the reclamation of a pan-congregational consciousness.  The radical congregationalism that we inherited, which sees no legitimate structure between the local gathering of the saints and the ethereal Church Universal, provides us few resources for renewal except those intimately linked to sectarianism.  Can we imagine a collective identity that is not simply tribal or nostalgic, that does not depend on fear, family ties, or inertia, but seeks a worthy goal or end game (telos, for the Grecophiles among us!) that contributes to the whole Church?   This is a question for all of us, and how we answer it (indeed, how we ask it) will profoundly shape theological education for the next generation or more.

The Reclamation of Spirituality.  The widespread, cross-denominational turn toward prayer, fasting, acts of service in community, and the ordinances of baptism and communion mark a significant change in the contemporary church and a much needed correction of the disembodied Christianity of much of the evangelical world, including some parts of Churches of Christ.  Younger people seek to live as authentic servants of Jesus Christ, and those who enter ministry seek environments in which they can lead others to be disciples, not in which they will be caretakers of institutions they did not build.  Too many of us seem increasingly to believe that the congregation is a place in which they must silently avoid controversy so as not to upset the sleeping generations of Christians present there.  Such a view of congregations is too pessimistic, to be sure, but it has merit.  In some sense, this wider spiritual turn reflects a deeper awareness of the emphases of Scripture itself and thus should be welcomed by a movement that sets such store by the words of the Bible.  On the other hand, the turn also offers a major challenge to our churches, because the practices of Christian spirituality are often highly attenuated in most of them.

I see this complex mix of desires and ideas often with my students.  They long to pray, and they long to serve.  They often have not learned to do so in their congregations or families.  The school of theology must pick up much of that slack.  Doing so requires deep thought about curriculum, the formation of faculty, the relationships between congregations and the school, and other issues.

On Theological Ends and, therefore Means

All of these changes, then, raise a key question: what is the goal of theological education?  What is its end?  How does theological education serve the church as it serves the Triune God?  In what ways does our teaching of Scripture, church history, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, ecumenics, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, congregational leadership, and whatever else we think vital to a theological school work to form persons who can equip leaders to equip saints for ministries of justice, peace, and love?  (And it is important to distinguish these means from the ends of our work.)

There are perhaps three ways to describe the end of theological education.  The first is doxology: our work should bring glory to God the Father who redeems the world through Jesus Christ and dwells in the church through the Holy Spirit in bringing that redemption to completion.  Considered from this point of view, our work is thus a form of worship, a move of the human soul to the contemplation of God.

The second word is mission: the church has a goal beyond its own self-preservation or even growth.  The practices of theological education serve to form leaders who will help the church engage in its mission.  Thus our old distinctions between missions and ministry or missionaries and ministers prove to be empty or even destructive.

The third word, or rather phrase, is traditioned imagination: I mean by this that we who teach in schools of theology should induct leaders into a tradition that is not fixed but that requires by its very nature and history that its leaders find ways to help it develop faithfully as the work of God continues in our world.  Thus church structures and the ways in which we create and disseminate theological knowledge (in the congregation and outside it) give shape, albeit temporarily and provisionally, to a corporate reality formed in communion with God.  (If you want to connect these three items to the immanent Trinity in some way, that is your business, and I will not object, though I’m not sure I feel much need to do so.)

The point is that, however we articulate the ends of theological education, we should acknowledge that there are ends, that we should distinguish them carefully from means and measure the latter in terms of the former, that the ends do not revolve around the maintenance of the status quo, and that therefore, there will inevitably be tensions between our schools of theology and the rest of the church.  Whether this tension is creative or merely tense will depend on our ability to foster the kinds of broad and deep conversations that have hitherto been very difficult in our movement.

To be continued….