When forced to give a research focus I say “Probably ecclesiology [fancy word for the study of the church], particularly the gap between confessional ecclesiology [what we say we believe about the church] and actual, lived church [how the church actually is and long has been]. For example, a chief belief of the church about the church has been about its oneness, its unity, but… has the church ever been one, truly, in practice? One need only read 1 Corinthians to wonder about that.”
So it is providential that the required doctoral seminar in theology this semester is on Bonhoeffer because he was pre-occupied, particularly in his early scholarship, with the identity of the church. I have just finished preparing for my second presentation gig in this seminar. We shift gears today away from lecture mode to disputation mode. I’m presenting and defending three theses on chapters six and seven of Discipleship. My fellow first year candidate for a Ph.D. in Theological Studies will respond with three counter theses to which I then need to extemporaneously reply. This is set up to give us practice for academic conference presentations. One of the things I’m highlighting in my arguments is the way Bonhoeffer identifies two communities present at the delivery of the Sermon on the Mount, the small band of disciples and the crowd. And I am arguing that they way he describes these two communities points to two communities of Christians in his own day, the wider crowd of German Christendom which he called the “Volkskirche” – Church as the people- and the small circle of the Confessing Church Movement. Bonhoeffer certainly suggests that though Christ’s intention is to save them all, only the small band are counted among the blessed and they are blessed in order to be a visible light to the rest to enable the hearing of the call and conversion to faithful discipleship. He suggests that the church which puts its faith in nation (or anything other than Jesus) is NOT the church at all. In search of appropriate contemporary application, I am wondering in defense of my second thesis if our Volkskirche today might not be the massive numbers of Christians and Christian churches who have put their trust in the market, in economics, in consumption and whether small intentional communities resisting being swallowed by capitalist impulses might not be parallel to the small band of disciples at the scene of the sermon on the mount, and in Germany’s confessing churches and seminaries.
Every ecumenical bone in my body resists calling some churches false churches and affirming other churches as “true churches” (though some manifestations of church… I can’t call them church… I’m thinking of the folks that spew hatred outside funerals for example, in the name of Jesus, Lord have mercy), but… Bonhoeffer has me thinking about the possibility for churches to be something other than churches and wrestling with how one honors one’s baptismal commitment to a community not of one’s own choosing and yet avoids being led into some unfaithful practice because of one’s very ecclesial commitments. I am a firm believer that there is no perfect church and church hopping/ church shopping is a rather futile task. I don’t even think that withdrawing into intentional communities of like minded folks is a viable solution, separatist impulses, even the best-intentioned, are fraught with dangers (largely the dangers of trusting in one’s self and one’s own convictions, the danger of self-justification).
It is also providential, as I begin this period of study in which I may well focus on the church, that we have found two faith communities, housed in one building. A fairly traditional (liturgically) though progressive (theologically and politically) Euro-American congregation in our denomination and an Afro-centric congregation of our denomination whose worship is far more contemporary, whose theology is quite moderate (though… hard to characterize… super progressive in some ways, conservative in others) but whose politics are quite progressive. We have been very faithful and regular worshippers in both communities for months now and are committed to continuing dual participation for as far as we can see into the future. The fact that there are few congregations in our denomination that are genuinely multi-cultural, or better yet cross-cultural, compels us to take advantage of this unusual juxtaposition of two congregations and to raise our child in both communities.
That said, we wrestle with how to be meaningfully committed and involved in two congregations. Kevin is an employee of the Euro-American church. I will start singing in the adult choir that he is starting this week. But the Afrocentric church strongly encourages 100% participation and we have yet to figure out how to best share of ourselves (other than financially) there. The sermon on Sunday in this second congregation was a bit of a scolding repeatedly asking whether the members of the congregation really understand what church is and if so if they know that church requires them to do their part. The sermon was tremendously resonant with Bonhoeffer and thus it vibrated in me deeply. There is an altar call in this church every week and, as far as I can tell, coming forward for the altar call means in every case that you are joining the church. As a Presbyterian pastor I can’t join any congregation. So I will likely never come forward. And I feel conspicuous every single week. I keep meaning to e-mail the pastor and ask for a chance to talk some of this through with him and yesterday I was really wishing I had gotten around to that.
Well, in his charge yesterday he asked that anyone in choir, anyone who had ever been in choir, anyone who had ever been in any choir, please stay after for 15 minutes. The woman who kindly sat with me because Kevin had to work yesterday and she noted I was alone, sighed heavily when he said this. I had been admiring her singing throughout the service and so I turned to her and said “I’ll stay if you stay.” It turns out that the musical ministries of this church have been suffering from low commitment and there was a danger of the choir dissolving completely. So, perhaps the sermon was somewhat driven by this reality, in any case… I made a pact with my new friend that we would both try this choir thing until my baby comes. She is nervous because she doesn’t like being up in front of people. I am nervous because I’ve never sung in a black choir before. We promised to back each other up. She said “Well at least you’ve got rhythm.” I raised my eyebrows, “Not so much,” I said. “Yes, you do, you were clapping on all the right beats today, most white folks clap differently than black folks, but you were with us.” “Thanks,” I said, “I’ve learned to follow, but… once upon a time… not so much.”
I am not sure if two choir rehearsals in a week, a weekly discussion group when I can make it, (and boy… i feel like i should try Bible Study with the afro-centric church- maybe I’ll alternate discussion group and Bible Study), two worship services a week… if this is sustainable with parenting and studying… but I do know that on the ground, in real life, the fact that we have landed in these churches is an tremendous opportunity to live and reflect on church. And that is what I am here to do, right?