I remember learning about ecclesiology in my basic Christian doctrines course when I was in seminary in the mid 1970’s. I had all the answers then. In seminary the doctrine of ecclesiology was a simple theological and theoretical pursuit. After 16 years of ordination, of doing ministry initially as a parish pastor, and for the past 10 years in a “specialized ministry setting,” the question of ecclesiology seems more obfuscated than ever. I think that now I at least know the right questions to ask.
In a time when mainline denominations are “competing” with entertainment ministries and sorting out how to do ministry with “builders, boomers, and busters,” when we are trying to figure out what it means to be a multicultural vs. homogeneous church, when participating in generic civil religion is more acceptable than being a Christian, the doctrine of ecclesiology becomes an important topic. Ecclesiology asks questions concerning the doctrine of the church, which is the body of Christ.
We in the ELCA sometimes forget that there are other Christians who are not of this ELCA fold who also have a different handle on matters theological. One of the gifts which African Americans bring to the ELCA is the notion that we are members of a larger church, not defined by the sin of denominationalism but defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and informed by the Christian traditions which have allowed African Americans to survive under circumstances and conditions in which our very lives were at stake. We are “on loan” if you will from the historical African American Christian church to Lutheranism.
As Pr. Fred Aigner and I have pursued and solicited contributors to address the topic of ecclesiology for this Pentecost issue of Let’s Talk, my concern is that there is a notable absence of contributions by lay persons. I believe that if anybody has a handle on ecclesiology it is the laity, without whom none of us would be professional church leaders.
Late last night (6/19/96), I had a conversation with Ms. Yvette Newberry, a member of Bethany Lutheran Church (92nd and Jeffrey Boulevard). Yvette is a very active member of the congregation where she has been a member for 20 years. She is also the president of the Chicago Chapter of the African American Lutheran Association and the treasurer of the national African American Lutheran Association, of which I am the president.
This past June we had been participants in a Washington DC evangelism event, “Proclaiming the Power!” for African American Lutherans, sponsored by the ELCA Divisions for Outreach and Congregational Ministries as well as the Commission for Multicultural Ministry. Participants felt revived and were very enthusiastic about the event.
One of the questions Yvette and I were trying to answer in our conversation was: “What happened in Washington DC that is not happening in our congregations?” Mind you, I was not asking Yvette what she thought about ecclesiology! As we were talking some of the things which Yvette said stuck in my mind, particularly in relation to this issue of Let’s Talk. I share these with you:
- The foundation for what it means to be a faithful church member has been neglected during the past 20 years. While we have been taught how to take care of church property and buildings we have not been taught how to take care of the Church, the people of God.
- Spiritual growth is a life-long process. It doesn’t just happen because you go to church on Sunday and support the programs of your congregation.
- Are congregational leaders real leaders? Do they lead the congregation in spiritual growth? Do they lead the congregation in Bible study and prayer and other activities which promote spiritual growth? Do they know what their responsibilities are as spiritual growth leaders and church members?
- The foundation for church membership must be laid when people become members of the church. The spiritual expectations as well as all the other expectations of a church member must be made clear.
- The most important facet of spiritual growth is exploring the answer to the question of what it means to have a personal relationship with God, with Jesus Christ, as differentiated from a corporate relationship.
- The onus for the spiritual growth of the people is on both pastor and people: the people need to be able to articulate their need and open themselves to the ways in which their professional leader will lead them; the pastor must nurture an environment in which this growth can happen.
- What is commitment? What is discipleship?
- The church for Christians might be compared to the safety net for trapeze artist. Members are able to fall into it safely and be revived and renewed when they can no longer hold on by themselves.
Here is a lay perspective. How do we address these concerns as we are catapulted into the 21st century?