Programmatic Triumphal Church to Relational Servant Ekklesia: A Conversion Narrative
By Gregory Holmes Singleton
I was involved in the initial discussions leading to the Pentecost 2008 issue of Let’s Talk. The editor kindly invited me to write some reflections. Other essays will offer inspiring and informative insights from those engaged in exemplary ministries in the Synod. This essay consists of some reflections based on a career spent trying to understand the dynamic interplay between the secular order and Christianity from a scholarly perspective, and a life in the church trying to understand those same dynamics from a Gospel perspective. Hopefully these reflections will be useful to others who are pondering some of the same issues. Much (most) of what follows will be insufferably personal, but when one talks about these matters one will find the experiential dimension necessary, and that which is experiential is unavoidably personal. Throughout it will be clear that I have concluded that if one is going to talk meaningfully about community (Christian or otherwise), and/or the church, and/or ministry, one will be talking about relationships. It will also be clear that I have come to this still evolving conclusion as the result of both a scholarly and an experiential conversion. While the two were inextricably intertwined as I lived through them, they are perhaps best communicated separately.
As I wonder where to begin a brief consideration of this huge subject, I glance through the titles in our home library. The books on the shelves are arranged in topical and disciplinary clusters, with one major exception. The books I consult most often are placed close at hand, independent of topic and discipline. Thus it is not unusual for The New Oxford Annotated Bible to sit beside Max Weber’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. All readers of Let’s Talk are familiar with the first book. The second may need a little introduction. Weber’s magnus opus is a huge piece of scholarship in size (over 1,000 pages), in breadth, and in profundity. In it he accomplishes many things, but I will limit myself in this piece to his insights on large-scale organization, particularly bureaucracies. Thus, the Bible and Weber mark two ends of a continuum in how we conceptualize ministry. The ancient texts tell us of ministry that often takes place one person at a time. Weber’s work contains some somber warnings about the organizational rejection of serendipitous opportunities for ministry as church bodies explore the grander vision of addressing large national and international policy issues, embracing Daniel Burnham’s admonition to make no small plans. In the next few pages I invite the reader to consider two possibilities. First, the Bible (particularly the Gospels) and the historical record of stylistic ministries of individuals and communities lead us in an incarnationally immediate, contextually nuanced, and Jesus-like direction. Second, the historical record of programmatic ministries of ecclesial bodies that have embraced more grandiose agendas (perhaps having ignored the lesson of the Tower of Babel) are not as exemplary and lead us in abstract, generalized, and inadvertently secular directions. Yes, this paragraph is a fair warning that, like most conversion narratives, this is as much a polemical piece as it is a reflection.
Reflections on a Career in History
The previous paragraph is something I would not have written in my youth. My college, seminary and graduate studies as well as most of the first decade of my career as a scholar were given over to a search for institutional and programmatic solutions to all (or at least most) of the world’s problems. Thus, my involvement in both the study of the church and the ministry of the church was largely institutional. I looked with a little pity and a great deal of disdain on the Apostolic and Early Patristic periods. In early antiquity, Christians seemed to be unable to get their act together. I was struck, for example, by the quite different takes on the Council of Jerusalem reported by the author of Luke/Acts and Paul. The variability in Christianity during the first three centuries was dismaying to me. Early in my undergraduate studies I encountered the introduction to George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. My Upper Division course work in Ancient History convinced me of the correctness of his perspective on the mutually exclusive cosmologies abounding in early Christianity.
Following my undergraduate work I traveled to New York to attend the seminary most likely to validate my mildly leftist activism (although the Divinity Schools at the University of Chicago and Harvard University might have worked just as well). Having my cosmology sanctified, I went on for doctoral work at a university whose detractors often referred to it with the grossly exaggerated nickname, “The Little Red (as in “Communist”) Schoolhouse by the Sea.” There I also had validated a sort of democratic centrism not uncommon in the Christian left at that time. In 1971, as a still wet behind the ears Assistant Professor, my perspective on the insufficiencies of Early Christianity received further fuel from Robert Wilken’s The Myth of Christian Beginnings (although re-reading it thirteen years later convinced me that I completely missed—or more precisely, reversed—the point Wilken was making).
The courses I constructed in Church History (I did not embrace the term “History of Christianity” until my late thirties) rushed past the early period. My lectures put on the brakes when I reached 325. One of my former students from those days recently told me that there was some speculation that we would spend more time on the Council of Nicaea than did the bishops who participated.
I was fascinated by the characteristics of the Constantinian era: the rationalization of theology, the emergence of a structure within the church that paralleled that of the Empire, and the notion that an entire social order and cultural form could become Christian. (I include these elements as a report on my perception in my early to mid-thirties. I would no longer characterize the period in this way.) This perspective shaped how I looked at other eras as well, including the integrative intellectual achievements of the twelfth century (at the time I was a dedicated believer in the romantic vision of Henry Adam’s Mont St. Michelle and Chartres) and the rationalizing impacts of the Reformation, economic, social, and political as well as religious.
In my own research I sought the American variants of what had become my major theme. Puritan New England, particularly in the seventeenth century was of obvious interest to me. Early in my career I joined a host of other historians in thinking of that complex web of theologies and social forms a theocracy. I may have disagreed with many of the outcomes, but I admired what I (probably erroneously) perceived as a unified system. The various Awakenings were fascinating, but they tended to devolve into the sort of confusion of tongues that characterized the Apostolic and early Patristic periods. My great fascination was with the voluntary associations that emerged as established churches began to disappear state by state in the early republic. These organizations (such as the American Home Mission Society, The American Tract Society, the American Temperance Society, and a host of abolitionist organizations) attempted to bring the moral force of a wide variety of American denominations of British Reformation origin together to operate as a de facto established church in the midst of a rapidly changing and only loosely organized nation. I immersed myself in the minutia of minutes and reports, the rhetoric of pamphlets, and the tedium of membership lists. These were my kind of people. They were organized, had a vision for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth now, and were somewhat impatient with those who said that we would always have the poor with us, even if it was Jesus who said it first.
If we engage scholarship honestly, we often discover things that challenge our most cherished predilections. Through a succession of conference papers and publications, I increasingly realized that I was not writing a triumphant saga, but an ironic history. Those who sought to bring the Gospel to the center of public life not only were co-opted by an increasingly secular culture, they had a great deal to do with actually building that culture. As a scholar I found this was an interesting interpretation to develop, and had I been a secularist the Damon Runyonesque twist might have amused me. As a Christian with (at that time) a slight triumphalist inclination I found my own scholarship devastating. When not teaching or attending ubiquitous committee meetings during most of the 1980s, I sought a new way to look at the History of Christianity (as I then began to call it).
Rethinking the History of Christianity from the beginning required a reassessment of primary sources and a consideration of scholarship about which I had previously known but whose topics had been off my radar screen. I spent far more time than ever before with the Jesus who formed relationships, who listened as well as spoke, who dined with a wide variety of people outside his primary group, who broke with social convention for the sake of illustrating the Gospel and giving us an example of the new life to which we were called. I spent far more time reading between the lines in Acts to come to an appreciation of the nuanced difficulties of forming and maintaining Jesus-like relationships after the Ascension. I have received a great deal of help in this quest from works such as the essays in the 1991 volume edited by Jerome H. Neyrey, The Social World of Luke-Acts, Luke Timothy Johnson’s Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (1998), and Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts (2005). Fortunately, I was familiar with Robert M. Grant’s Early Christianity and Society (1977) and that has protected me from an exaggerated romanticism about pre-Nicaean Christian communities as perfect networks of loving relationships. That caveat does not prevent me from seeing relationship and community as foundational for both the internal life and the ministry of ekklesia. I hold to this primarily because of the example of the actions of Jesus and the social implications of the all four Gospel narratives, and particularly the long discourse in the 13th through 17th chapters of the Gospel according to John.
Thus, the Constantinian moment which had once been the lens through which I understood both the church as an institution and the church’s programmatic ministry of social control became for me an unfortunate bit of historical baggage we need to get beyond. My still emerging sense of ministry is now rooted in ekklesia—the continuing Body of Christ consisting of individuals called apart from individualism into community, and sent back to the world to minister in the name of the Risen One through relationships more than through agendas. My view of the History of Christianity changed from a linear development of an institution to the more subtle dynamic created by the tension between the institutional church and the relational community of ekklesia. The corollary is a dynamic created by the tension between institutional ministries of sweeping programs to address generalized issues and relational ministries in response to the needs of those we encounter. This perspective led me to delve more deeply into movements such as the Waldensians (12th century), Franciscans (13th century), Brethren of the Common Life / Devotio Moderna (14th century), and that group of migrants to New England who, in the 1630s, gathered in Anne Hutchinson’s home for mid-week devotions in addition to being part of the assembly in the institutional Church on Sunday mornings. All of these started as intentional communities.
There is much more, but these examples will suffice. Clearly my studies gave me hope in the face of my initial despair.
A Rambling Personal Reflection of a Christian
The previous section is a summary of an understanding that evolved slowly in my career as a historian. It is still evolving in my retirement years. As a result of my scholarly reflection I experienced a transformation in my understanding of Christian vocation, the nature of the church, and the ministry to which we are all called through baptism. The transformation (which took place slowly in my thirties) was/is multifaceted, but none of those facets is more important than the passage from programmatic institutional Christianity to stylistic relational Christianity. I did not easily give up my programmatic approach, and I still find it tucked away in corners of my consciousness.
I first became aware of having a sense of ecclesiology and Christian vocation following my freshman year in college. It was the summer of 1959. A group of us who were born somewhere around 1940 gathered to congratulate ourselves for being socially conscious, politically aware, and morally superior. We imbibed equal portions of Kierkegaard, Barth, Tielhard de Chardin, Sartre and Silone. We canonized Buber, Bonheoffer, Camus and Gramsci. We thrilled to the sound of Missa Luba and prayed to Malcolm Boyd’s running Jesus. We were on the verge of becoming mildly left activists. In short, we were the National Student Christian Federation.
For some in my generation the NSCF set the tone for the exciting possibilities with which the church was blessed in the 1960s. Those were glorious days, but the religious, social, and political ethos of the age was not without its shortcomings. In so saying, I do not recant one indignant outcry, nor annul one march, nor withdraw my signature from any one of a host of petitions. One need not retract in order to reevaluate, and reevaluation is mandatory for growth.
A variety of images inform my memory of this period. The earliest memories are still the most vivid. Just before the decade began (indeed, just on the heels of the 1959 NSCF Conference) a group of us from the West Coast rushed back from the meeting to gather outside the San Francisco City Hall. The House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings were in progress and we were there to protest as an act of political evangelism. We were only a small part of a much larger crowd. Others were there to witness as well: groups of nuns, Jews, Mennonites, and Marxists. This was the first political action event for those of us in the NCSF. Gus Hall and Herbert Marcuse had become our Amos and Obadiah. We had not abandoned Christian mentors, but they were not quite the prophets of change we wanted at the moment. Malcolm Boyd was not yet political. Theodore Gill and Eugene Carson Blake stopped short of overt action. Paul Tillich was highly suggestive, and we devoured his works, but he seemed too remotely located in Jungian thought for most of us who were political. There was, of course, Reinhold Niebuhr, but we had the uneasy feeling that he could be used to buttress the “other side” just as easily. All of the above would come to occupy places of honor in our pantheon, but none of them represented the prevailing Christian mood in 1959.
The dominant American Christian voices of the day were Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and Fulton J. Sheen. Those of us in the NCSF were all veterans of an endless series of tea-and-cookie church gatherings which seemed a bit too much like placid and meaningless pleasantries passing between those three paragons of popular piety. The timing was right. The NCSF whetted our appetites for some grander vision of discipleship than Sunday morning could offer. The HUAC in San Francisco provided our opportunity. We joined hands across and beyond denominational boundaries for freedom of thought and speech. This was far more satisfying than joining hands with our co-religionists who condoned the actions of the HUAC. This was our baptism into political action. The San Francisco Fire and Police Departments immersed us in water bursting from fire hoses, swept us down the marble steps of the rotunda, and then gathered us into paddy wagons. On the way to the holding cells the nature of our religio-secular commitment became clear. We sang. “Once to Every Man and Nation” melded with “Abolish the Committee, We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Although we protested against specific institutions throughout the sixties, those of us on the Christian left still believed in the efficacy of institutions in general—if they did what we wanted. While the secular counter-culture may have placed a premium on spontaneity, our “happenings” were the result of formal planning. We were committed to ecumenism but could not conceive of a whole—an oikoumene—that did not involve institutional organic unity. Indeed, institutions were a necessary precondition for our brand of commitment. The National and World Councils of Churches provided an initial backdrop. For college youth (and, God help us, more than a few of us thought we defined the universe), there were organizations like the NSCF. The ultimate expression came with the Blake-Pike Proposal of 1962 and the resultant Consultation on Church Union. The strengths of deliberate institutional ecumenism are obvious. The weakness, and the folly, was that we excluded as much as we included. COCU was limited to a handful of traditions, specifically those denominations of a WASPish sort. The NCC and WCC were comfortable housings for moderate and liberal denominations. The conservatives took refuge in the American Council of Christian Churches and the International Council of Christian Churches. The division indicated by the paired organizations was deep and long-lasting. No matter how much I have mellowed over the decades, I would still find it difficult to fellowship with the likes of Carl McIntyre.
But what few of us considered back in the sixties is that the ACCC and ICCC represented many who were not McIntyre. We ignored them in the name of a true ecumenism. The NSCF has a variety of conservative counterparts. In California during my undergraduate and graduate school years, the most prominent of those was Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ. We will never know whether dialogue between the two groups would have been fruitful. Neither side was willing to try.
Most of us on the Christian left were also associated at various times with organizations such as the ACLU, SCLC, and the SDS. I was a member of all three and can’t imagine that my Christian response to the conditions at that time could have been any different than it was. Unfortunately, my participation in these activities was underscored by a smug moral stance (alas, not unusual in our crowd) that left little room for dialogue with those of alternative views.
We were fixated on a strange blend of eschatology and secular “significance,” with more than a pinch of impatience. We wanted our social justice, our ecumenism, and our Kingdom of God on earth, and we wanted it now, and that required that our religious events be purposeful stepping stones toward that heaven on earth. Part of our “significance” mania can be attributed to an earnest seriousness that had little room for irony and humor. We had not yet learned the virtue of the dictum put forward by Martin Marty and Dean Peerman early in the sixties: there are things that one does well to take very, very seriously, but not all that seriously. There was some virtue in our eagerness. Historian Timothy Smith has shown how millennialism gave focus and immediacy to some American reform movements in the nineteenth century.
Immediacy does lead to very intense commitment. On the debit side, such intensity, with its impatience and lack of irony and humor, tends to give rise to movements that burn out quickly. Certainly we did. In my case, the burnout coincided with my discovery of the ironic outcome of my beloved institutional ecclesiology. Fortunately, the cure for my despair began to take shape early in the 1980s. My emerging experiential / relational / communal ecclesiology prepared me to look for church (or more properly ekklesia) in other than specific institutional expressions.
Through two experiences as catechists (one in the 1990s and one in this decade), my wife, Jeannine, and I came to know the joy of the intentional community of those supporting the catechumenate process and the wonderful spiritual bond we shared with those being prepared for baptism. We also became acutely aware of the extent to which we were the recipients of ministry from those to whom we ministered.
Since those two pivotal experiences, our life together has been enriched by numerous examples of ministerial opportunities we encounter in the prosaic events of everyday life, including inadvertently and quietly giving witness during one-on-one conversations. We have recently participated in forming an intentional community of worship and ministry (sometimes called “house church”). We began with three members on Advent I of 2007 and now number six. In percentage growth I suppose that could be made to look impressive, but the absolute numbers will not gain the attention of advocates of the Church Growth Movement. It is our small size, making every member a part of a servant community, that allows us to lay plans for actively engaging three populations in the Rogers Park/Evanston area (the aging, the homeless, and university students) in a matrix of dialogue and service. We are not a portion of a congregation seeking the financial and moral support of others for going forward. In all things we are a committee of the whole. We have drawn upon the examples of both the Franciscans and the Brethren of the Common life. Our community is named after Francis, and our founding thought is of Francis attempting to rebuild the ruined Church of San Damiano only to realize that the church he was to rebuild was a community, and that his construction materials were not bricks, but relationships. In our life together and an attempt to build a relational ministry driven by a response to the needs of those we encounter, the Community of St. Francis has been instructed by examples from many Christian traditions, including those Chicago area Lutheran ministries that are the subjects of other articles in this issue of Let’s Talk.
As we enter this new phase of our life together in Christ as the Community of St. Francis, we try to keep the following principles in mind:
This is how we experience our call to live out our baptismal covenant. An intentional community is not the way for everyone, nor is it a superior way. But it is a way that does have legitimacy within the Body of Christ.
Just as there are some things an intentional relational community can do best, such as encountering others one-on-one or in small groups, there are some things a congregation can do that an intentional community can’t. We seek alliances with these larger ecclesial entities across denominations to foster dialogue between these two expressions of the Body of Christ.
We learn from the Great Tradition of the Church over centuries and across ecclesial traditions. In our study and meditation, the wisdom of the Patristic Doctors of the Church stand shoulder to shoulder with contemporary insights. From the early Doctors we get our foundational theology. From contemporaries, such as the Rev. Dr. Frank Senn, we get encouragement to make the ancient tradition live on in spaces and communities that are in our time innovative, but in the history of the church quite ancient indeed (see particularly the final chapter and epilogue of his The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy).
We look for the broadest possible definition and experience of the church catholic, and think less in terms of denomination and more in terms of the extent to which a given community of faith manifests the love of God in Christ Jesus, and the extent to which the ministry that goes forth from that community proclaims the Gospel in word and action. We use this standard for assessing ourselves.
We have come to believe that an intentional community needs to be involved in the celebration of Word and Sacrament as often as possible, and that this celebration is the best method of formation to go forth in the name of Christ. We also believe that the intentionality of the community—including several common meals throughout the week, frequent conversations and social gatherings, and mutual accountability and support as we go about developing our ministries to the world beyond us—is also a method of formation. To the old dictum that the way we worship shapes the way we believe we would add a corollary: the way we relate to one another within the Body of Christ shapes the way we relate to those to whom our community ministers.
We have come to believe that the Gospel calls us to be servants, to discern the needs of those we encounter in conversation with them and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to be open to radical challenges to our preconceptions as we continue to study the Word, be nourished by the Sacraments, and experience enrichment from fellowship with those to whom God sends us to minister, even—or especially—in serendipitous encounters.
While we do make plans, we realize that they are always Plan B. Plan A is always in God’s province, and we trust that God’s plan will be revealed to us in often surprising ways. Programmatic ministry may be called for from time to time, but relational ministry is always in order.
As a corollary to the above, we have come to believe that programmatic plans for ministry can potentially lead to a reliance on our own abilities and insights. Being relational means that we are prepared to encounter Christ in those to whom we are called to minister, as we listen for the voice of God in the most unexpected places.
You have often seen his name...
...in these pages as he offered insight and wisdom about matters before the church. This issue is no exception. We on the Editorial Council have had the additional benefit of sharing a common purpose with Gregory Holmes Singleton and the pleasure of being in conversation with him: always interesting, frequently witty, seasoned with sagacity. We have learned to discount his claim to be a curmudgeon in all venues.
Gregory has left the ELCA to become a priest in the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America. Our friend’s work on the Editorial Council of Let’s Talk has been a blessing. We bid him farewell and Godspeed.
Thomas Knutson and Wayne Cowell
for the Editorial Council