I love the Reformed church as a member, a pastor, and a theologian. I pray that it may have a future. My deeper concern, however, is for the future of the church, and that in a Reformed expression. Is there a future for the church gathered around confessions, church order, and liturgy as shaped by the Reformed Church in America’s constitution?
In the November 2009 Perspectives, Don Luidens and Brad Lewis worry about the future of the Reformed Church in America. Luidens approaches the question as a sociologist, with tools appropriate to the social scientist. Lewis sounds to me as though he is responding from a more programmatic perspective. Each has their place. I, however, wish to consider the question as a theologian-pastor. Let me explain.
As part of a sabbatical project, I interviewed a number of pastors of RCA churches in two regional synods, Albany and Great Lakes. I was interested in asking how congregations, as we live and know them in all their messy reality, reflected what Reformed people confess in Answer 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism: that we believe that “the Son of God through his Spirit and Word …gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life.” Does what we see in our congregations give expression to that belief?
A naïf as either journalist or social scientist, I simply took a tape recorder, armed with a series of questions. I met with pastors from churches large and small, urban and rural, conservative and moderate (to the extent those terms have meaning). I asked them what gave their congregations energy, what kept them going as pastors, as well as a number of open-ended questions. I heard stories of life, of a vitality that I already suspected was present. I am a pastor and I know the life I’ve been privileged to witness. Pastors told me stories that gave this preacher a new appreciation of what goes on in congregations as God is at work.
As we would come to the end of our conversations and review what the minister had shared with me, very often he or she said something like this, “No one has ever asked me those kinds of questions.”
I was interested in how congregations, in all their messy reality, reflect Answer 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism that says of the church: “the Son of God through his Spirit and Word…gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life.”
They had been asked by others about the programs they had initiated, about the number of persons in worship on a Sunday, how well they were doing with their budget–a certain kind of institutional information. But no one asks them about what goes on in the work of ministry in its everyday expression. And they are witnesses to the extraordinary work of God’s Spirit in ordinary places.
I suggest this as a way of affirming that indeed the church has a future; that the future is in God’s hands; and that we are witnesses of God at work–that God does in fact “gather, protect and preserve for God’s self a community chosen for eternal life.”
As a Reformed theologian, I saw this happen specifically as God acts through Word and sacrament to gather and shape congregations as communities of faith. I describe that as the Word engaging congregations in conversation with God. Secondly, I describe how the sacraments constitute the congregation. They give it space and time, both God’s space for the human-in-community and also the community time for God.
God speaks the congregation into being. The story of scripture is written not only on the hearts of believers, but on the congregations themselves as the story is told and re-told, as it is studied and preached. The congregation enscripts the scripture, that is, it begins to reflect that Word and is shaped in a new way.
A pastor of a large urban church relates how his congregation has learned to expect strangers of all sorts, including those who spend most of their time living on the street. Three teen-aged siblings found their way into that congregation. Their mother experienced a rough life, scarcely able to take care of her children. One day one of the members asked simply, “How can we help these children?” Thus began a humble project of “being there” for these young persons. The congregation functioned as the only family the teen-agers knew. The congregation became a community that enscripted the kind of hospitality that emerges deep from the story of Israel and articulated by Jesus when he opened his arms and said “Come unto me,” and when he reminded his followers that “in so far as you do it to the least of these…”.
A more familiar, and explicit story comes from a suburban congregation that found its life and passion when it began a ministry that put the story of faith into dramatic form. It began a liturgical life through a “clown drama.” The stories of faith became the stories they put on stage, which in turn opened them to a deeper way of life together. In more humble ways, congregations do exactly that each Christmas when the children don the bathrobes and haloes to stage the story of Christmas, a story that the children never forget. Or it happens as the congregation finds its way through Holy Week, reliving a story that is enscripted.
This is the strange story of God’s way with the world. It is not the story that we would script for ourselves. It is not our word spoken loudly. It is God’s Word that judges and saves. This was told in dramatic fashion by a minister who reported that her congregation had been working on hearing God’s call to welcome the outsider. This was to become real and painful when a young woman, who had grown up in the congregation had made a couple of terrible choices in marriage.
A naïf as either journalist or social scientist, I simply took a tape recorder, armed with a series of questions. I met with pastors from churches large and small, urban and rural.
The results were a relationship in which her live-in boyfriend beat their child to the point of death. The young woman was charged with complicity in the action and faced real prison time. The congregation struggled to support the young woman, while having to face their own doubts and divisions around the severity of the crime, as well as the taint of being associated with one who was considered morally outlawed in the community.
In all of these instances–dramatic perhaps–that truly happened in ordinary Reformed churches, one can confess that God’s Word has indeed shaped a communion.
God’s Word, however, is not one-way. God doesn’t silence the human with the power of God’s own voice. God’s Word evokes and welcomes human response. In so doing, God’s speech gives us our voice. We are called to our humanity. This happens in the liturgical life of the church as we sing and pray, and do so as a people who gather in an ordinary place, week in and week out, with neighbors and fellow-citizens.
Again a story. A minister tells me that a woman had been attending church for some months. Her ability to read was such that she could not quite keep up with the congregation as it engaged in the responsive portions of the liturgy. The minister and congregation grew accustomed to slowing its pace in such a way that Joan could keep up. It was spring and the children were preparing to lead the worship for the annual Children’s Day celebration. Each class had taken a certain portion of the liturgy. The fourth grade class was doing the “responsive reading.” As they rehearsed, they were overheard to remind each other to “go slow enough for Joan.” This without prompting of their teachers. I suggest that this is a community, now in its children, that has gotten its voice and gotten it as God’s welcoming and open community.
Reformed congregations often understand that the Word is at the center of its existence–notice the sizeable open Bible on the oft-central pulpit. The sacraments, however, also shape the life of the congregation. In the sacraments, the Spirit makes of this gathered congregation a people of God, the body of Christ, the communion of the Holy Spirit. Ministers told me stories of how congregations were configured around a certain space, were given a space in God’s presence in their own communion, and how they were also placed in a history with God, not simply giving time for God, but God giving time for them.
An example: a suburban congregation that finds itself scattered among a number of villages and housing developments. Their community is not geographically compact. And yet their common life has a certain space that extends beyond the four walls of the church building. It reaches into their homes and their places of work. It is a sort of invisible space created by the members of the community in whatever place they are.
This space takes on a certain poignancy in a project by which the congregation produces quilts that are then given to members who are hospitalized. The quilts are crafted by church members. They are then brought into the sanctuary during a Sunday morning worship. There the congregation gathers in prayer around the quilt, praying for the recipient, before the quilt is brought to the person. In this simple act, the person is embraced by the community. She is not alone, but is a member of a communion as it prays, and as she touches and is touched by the quilt. The physicality of the quilt reflects the physicality of the sacraments of both baptism and the supper.
It is a community that has been gathered–nay created–by font and table that becomes a space of welcome, extending now beyond homes and work, even into the “far places” where the ill sleep in quiet loneliness at the margins of life itself. The congregation has become embodied, and so “enspaced.”
Bodies take space. Christ’s body takes space. They also live through time. As the sacraments give to the church a configuration, the congregation is set within a history, God’s history with the human, indeed with these particular humans in this particular place. Their existence has a time to it, and so expresses itself in the stories of a life together.
A pastor told me of the congregation’s celebration of its history of over one hundred years. He was amazed that while he struggled to get people to do the countless tasks that need doing in a congregation, people lined up to be part of the story-telling of the church’s life. A videographer got a number of the older members to tell stories of the church through wars and blizzards. Another put together the story of the church as well as the village the church serves. As the celebration unfolded, the notion began to get through that “God is faithful.” The pastor called that moment “exhilarating.” He had spoken of times of frustration as a pastor, but “at that moment I wanted to hold them all, even the complainers.”
This is a people with a time, a history. But more, it is a people for whom God has time and takes time. God’s sacramental presence has shaped a communion. It’s ordinary, under our very noses, but extraordinary nevertheless.
I have not told stories directly related to the sacraments themselves, although I could. I could have reported a church who practices hospitality as it welcomes each child as each of the members greets the young child. Or of a church where in the supper a woman certain that she isn’t worthy is accompanied to the table by a deacon. My point is simple: God gives this communion shape in place and time.
All of this is occasion for deep gratitude. I was a privileged listener, as my interlocutors, fellow ministers witnessed the Spirit’s work in the congregations they served. And the congregations themselves are witness, that the future of God’s church is in God’s hands. This is not a fiction we tell ourselves to comfort ourselves when we’re discouraged. It’s right in front of our eyes.
I’m not trying to make a larger case than is available. I make no claim that the RCA will survive even into the middle of this century (although I rather think it will). Nor am I advocating a certain quietism whereby we do nothing and God does all the work. The ministers I spoke with all spoke of how hard their congregations worked to be faithful. Nonetheless all of them were, I’m sure, surprised with the wonder when it happened.
I suggest only that we look a little more closely at what goes on at ground level. Pay attention to what God is about, and spend a good bit of our time doing what we claim we are doing in worship. That is, celebrate the acts of God, and to celebrate them as we are made witness.
Indeed, we can articulate our gratitude in the words of another of the Reformed Standards, the Belgic Confession. (Confessions are, among other things, hymns of thanksgiving to the God who speaks the church and all creation into being). There in Article 27 we say that “this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of humans–as though it were snuffed out.” Every once in a while we’re allowed to see that we have spoken nothing less than the truth.