Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

The Church Come of Age

  By Rev. Fritz Ritsch, D. Min., Pastor, St. Stephen Presbyterian Church, Fort Worth, Texas

There was a moment at the NEXT Church Conference in Dallas that made my jaw set   and  my stomach clench.

The director of the Ecclesia Project, the Rev. Judd Hendrix, was  speaking. The Ecclesia Project intentionally cultivates bi-vocational pastorships–pastors with “real” jobs who are pursuing alternative ways of creating churches. It sounds kind of fun, out of the box, the kind of thing Presbyterians don’t normally do–a guy starting a running ministry, a French-speaking African fellowship, that kind of thing. Way to go, I’m thinking.

Then Hendrix starts on me. 

What’s standing in the way of more creative, exciting ways of doing church?

Hendrix tells me that I am.

Me, because I am professional clergy and my salary and pension and all my future and  my family’s future and even my congregation’s self-understanding are tied up in the fact that I am a professional, full-time clergy person. I am standing in the way of my congregation doing ministry because they count on me to do it for them. I am standing in the way of creative, out-of-the-box ways of doing church because churches that can’t afford a teaching elder are called “dying churches.” I’m standing in the way of non-traditional ways of developing and installing clergy because I’ve got a very strong investment in the present job description.

Hendrix asked, “How many of you are ruling elders here today?” Half the hands went up.

“You-don’t-need-us,” Rev. Hendrix said.

And my jaw set and my stomach clenched because he was right.

And a quote kept running through my head:

“The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the freewill offerings of their congregation, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. … It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.  It must not under-estimate the importance of the human example…; it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan (SCM Press), 1971. P. 383)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this  as a prisoner of the Nazis in 1944. It was the thesis of a projected book, his response to “humankind come of age.” Bonhoeffer believed that the modern world had outgrown traditional Christianity. God had become unnecessary to the human equation, replaced by science and humanism. Rather than kick against this–complain, as one workshop leader wryly commented, about “the unreasonable customer”–Bonhoeffer was proposing adaptive change. The church must abandon its paternalistic approach to ministry and allow the capable, independent faithful to be the body of Christ. The church must shed itself of its conservatism–by which Bonhoeffer meant its investment in keeping things the way they are–by ridding itself of property and special status in the state. Clergy must be bi-vocational, taking “real” jobs and subsisting on “goodwill offerings.”

Most important, he says, we need to shed ourselves of dogma and focus on praxis. “It is not abstract argument, but example, that gives [the church’s] word emphasis and power.” He even pushes that further, proposing “revising the creeds (the Apostles’ Creed); revision of Christian apologetics; reform of the training for the ministry and the pattern of clerical life.”

I think that some seventy years after his death, the time may finally have come for Bonhoeffer’s vision to become reality.

Bonhoeffer would have appreciated the theme of theologian Stacey Johnson’s presentation. Johnson called us back to the “logic of the cross.” The logic of the cross is that death leads to resurrection. “Our future is with God,” Johnson said. But we’ve been operating on the logic of survival–the fear of “perishing,” of death. Instead of daring the new, we’re invested in protecting the old. Faith calls us to risk and to dare, to try adaptive change, and to trust God with the future. Survival thinking makes us focus on technical change–how to get more butts in the pew, whether to use traditional or contemporary music. But what’s needed is nothing less than death and resurrection.

“The church is the church only when it exists for others,” Bonhoeffer said.

Bonhoeffer had tried to stand against Hitler’s outrages through the church. He’d seen the German churches for the most part fold into Nazism because of their investment the way things were. He’d had high hopes for the Confessing Church, especially after Barmen; but that turned out to be the high point. The Confessing Church was too invested in a mamby-pamby idea that Christians aren’t supposed to rock the boat past a certain point. He discovered the same problem with the worldwide ecumenical movement. And even when Bonhoeffer became involved in the political conspiracy to kill Hitler, he was shocked by the investment of its leaders in the status quo. They wanted Germany to keep some of its gains under Hitler; they believed that they could salvage Germany as a powerful nation. They didn’t see, as he did, that Germany would need to die and be reborn.

And that the church would need to do the same.

The church’s investment in “the world as it is” is killing us. Actually, it’s not an investment in “the world as it is.” It’s “the world as it was.” Bonhoeffer told us it needed to die seventy years ago, and we’re only just getting around to seeing his point.

We haven’t seen it because we aren’t existing for others. We’re existing for ourselves. Surely forty years of debating the merits of “church growth strategies” that in truth only shift congregations from one church to another, without ‘evangelizing’ anybody, is proof enough of our self-involvement.  Surely thirty years of arguing arcane theological points about sex while the world concludes we’re repressed and repressive is proof enough that we have become narcissistic beyond all reason.

We need to exist for others. We are not the church of Jesus Christ if we don’t. To exist for others means, we don’t make the rules. To exist for others means that we are willing to die for the sake of the other. The world needs the church as it is to die so that the church that’s needed can emerge.

It needs to start with my generation.  Oh, I have no intention of giving up my salary and pension. But I will no longer be party to sustaining a system that creates rules and boundaries that force the upcoming generations to do things the way I do them. The church has been talking about adaptive change for twenty years, but it is only at this conference that I have seen the face of adaptive change–this generation of millenials who are the emerging leaders of the Next Church. I saw a few seminarians with long faces–they were realizing, as I was, that the church they were going to serve is not going to be for them what it was for past generations. I wish I’d known that 25 years ago.

But I have to say, the millenials are the generation that is most likely to create a Church Come of Age for Humanity Come of Age. Look at the traits generally assigned to millenials:

They view job variety as essential to their enjoyment of life. Who better to create a bi-vocational model for ministry?

They love risk and change, and they’re certainly used to it. They bring the “outside-the-box” thinking we’ve got to have to be the Next Church.

They haven’t inherited the paternalistic values of preceding generations. They were schooled in cooperative learning (thanks to great teachers and DCEs) and they believe in teamwork and a democratic workplace. The church’s paternal “we’ve got the answers” approach to a World Come of Age is our most damning trait. This is the generation equipped to change that.

They are service-oriented and have been raised to value and expect diversity. I believe, as Bonhoeffer did, that the Next Church needs to focus less on orthodoxy and more on orthopraxy, living our faith. “[Do] not under-estimate the importance of the human example…; it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” This is the generation that can tolerate doctrinal differences because they prefer to live their faith through their actions. Maybe they’ll finally prove the truth in the song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our Love.”

And, thanks be to God, this generation of ministers is “brand-loyal!” That means that they love being Presbyterian, and will apply their energy, creativity, imagination and love to it’s distinctive “brand.”

Here’s one more piece that is worth mentioning. If the theory of cycling generations is right, this is the next generation of civics. Civics are committed to building community and serving others. The last generation of civics was the World War II generation, many of whom are still around. They fought World War II and built the post-war US. My children, who are millenials, were taught in Sunday school by GI generation teachers–teachers who had been on the Capitol Mall when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, who’d broken race and gender barriers, who’d been the first female elders in their churches, who’d spat in the eye of the greatest evil of the 20th Century.

Here’s something amazing: thanks to modern medicine, this is the first American generation of civics that has ever been trained by the previous generation of civics. 

How much more of a perfect storm of possibility could there be for this generation to create the Next Church?

It’s almost as if God had planned it this way.

I have gotten to know and respect a lot of these younger ministers. Some seem to look up to me as a mentor. And what I’m realizing is that, for all the years that I thought that somehow I would make a great mark on the world, maybe I won’t. Maybe by God’s grace, my mark will be made by some young teaching elder I had the good fortune to mentor along the way.

And so, I have to get out of their way. My generation of ministers has to start tearing down the barriers that are blocking the development of new possibilities. We need to set aside the rules that require churches to be a certain way. How do you create a new church when you’ve got a model that defines a church only one way? How do you allow for the possibility of God doing ministry in new ways when you have rules that say ministry can only be done this way, or that ministers can only be trained in that way?

It’s my generation that can make or break these essential changes. We can selfishly argue that “I had to do it this way, so they have to.” We can protect our legacy of sinecures and property investments.

Or we can do what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, and get the hell out of the way.

Leave a Comment