One of my observations in talking to people about their churches and church programs is that they find the first moment when a book or program differs from their situation and take one of two approaches. First, they might discard the entire thing. This is fairly common. That won’t work for us. It doesn’t matter that what we’re doing isn’t working either. Second, they try to follow the program precisely, despite any differences, because if it worked for the expert who wrote the book, it has to work for them.
Neither of these is a strategy that is likely to succeed. Each person, community, church congregation, denomination (or jurisdiction within a denomination) is different. Each one will have different opportunities and perhaps a different call from God. I am passionately convinced that sharing the good news about Jesus with the world is our general calling. Whether that is going to involve a food pantry, classes, involvement in broader community outreach, collecting money for projects across the globe, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities, is wide open.
Especially in protestantism we tend to downplay tradition, but our church tradition has a role. The way you will carry out certain missions is going to depend on the history of the church congregation. We don’t all get her in the same way, and we’re not going to move forward in the same way. Dr. Ruth Fletcher, in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations devotes an entire chapter to choosing, to the necessity of discerning the right path and making and carrying out decisions.
The reason I wanted to emphasize this right now is that quite frequently we think we cannot benefit from something like “apostolic teaching” or “the Word of God” unless we absolutely agree on what it is and how we’re going to deal with it. But just amongst the books that I publish, we have Dr. David Alan Black, a Southern Baptist Greek teacher (and full-time missionary, he’d insist!) and Dr. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor, seminary professor, and a process theologian who are both going back to the same place: Acts of the Apostles. Now I’ll tell you that if you read both of their books, something I urge you to do for reasons beyond the fact that I publish both, you’ll find quite a number of things they disagree on and quite a number of points of different emphasis. But in a church that is often drifting and dying while repeating the same behaviors that led it to its current malaise, that one similarity is enormous. Let’s look back at the early church. Let’s ask what made Christianity what it is. Perhaps there is something there that would help us.
Now one interpreter might be looking for a definitive, apostolic pattern to apply and follow. Another might be looking for a series of commands that one can carry out. Another might be reading the story and asking how are stories might relate. Yet certain things come out of such a study, and certain things result from going to the source.
I’m very protestant in ethos. I’m not at all interested in things like apostolic succession, in the sense of a series of people who had hands laid on them by a person who had hands laid on them leading back to the apostles. But I’m very interested in seeing what those early apostles did. I’m very interested in connecting my story to theirs. There is nothing about that process that is mechanical or that allows me to depend totally on someone else’s work.
Dave makes this point in the interview as he talks about us teaching one another. Why am I comparing what Dave has said with what two other authors have said? Is it so that I can sell more books? Of course I want to sell more books. I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I don’t care about selling books. But that’s not the key reason. I started publishing to do this. I wanted us to teach one another, to do on a broad scale what Dave is talking about in the local church (where I also want to see it done). I want is to help one another learn. I hope we find ourselves challenged.
There is nowhere that I want to see this more than in our use of the Bible. How is it that we can begin to see more of this individual Bible study in the church? And let me specify here by “individual” I mean “individual in community.” Let’s avoid two serious errors: 1) That Bible study is individual without any community control or involvement, and 2) That Bible study is a communal affair that can be handled by an expert passing out information. The reason I named a series I publish “participatory” in spite of the number of people who thought that word was too long, is that it is individuals participating in community who have the best possibility to find the message for themselves, their churches, and their communities.
Ruth Fletcher comments on this. Note how she doesn’t propose the same type of study for all types of churches.
Even though this is an age when people care more about what the church does than what it believes, transforming congregations know they must lessen the gap between people’s experience of God and the church’s teaching about God if the church is once again to become a reliable source of wisdom. Beliefs matter. Transforming congregations that are creedal churches help individuals discover a deeper truth in the words they recite; those that are non-creedal churches create safe space where individuals can work out their own guiding beliefs. They create space within their own tradition where people have the freedom to honestly express doubts, to say what they do not believe, to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers, and to wonder about the mysteries of the universe. (Thrive, p. 91)
Bruce Epperly has a similar idea:
The first followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were a church whose spirituality was truly holistic. They prayed and they studied, and discovered study was a form of prayer. We need thinking Christians, who take theological reflection seriously, who ask serious questions, and challenge unhealthy and superficial images of God and human experience. (Transforming Acts, p. 48)
If you think the various visions are distant from one another consider this: What would happen to the church in America if we were to focus on studying the early church looking for insight into how to be a church following Jesus in the world today? I think that a number of wonderful things might happen despite how we decided to approach the question and the hermeneutical principles we took to the effort. Do I want us to debate such hermeneutical principles? Absolutely! The do make a difference. I think one of the greatest things we can do is to consider and discuss that issue seriously. But if we started at that point, we’d already be devoting ourselves, in our own limited ways, to the apostles’ teaching. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
The section on this mark in the video begins about 15:30. I’m not setting the video to the starting point, as I suspect most who are willing to invest time in the video will watch it as a whole once.