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Embarrassed by the Church: Congregations and the Seminary

by Stanley Hauerwas and W. Willimon

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon teach at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 5-12, 1986, p. 117. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Though seminary faculties like to affirm, in principle, a relationship between Christian theology and the life of the church, academic theology tends to view the ministering congregation as an addendum to the really interesting issues of ethics, philosophical and political theology, or social policy. The most pressing issue for seminary faculties is usually how to make courses in theology and ethics "relevant" to the actual work of the ministry.

In his 1984 presidential address to the Society of Christian Ethics, Tom Ogletree noted that most Christian ethicists do not see their task as that of providing moral guidance for Christian congregations. As a result, "such communities have come to have significance chiefly in the private sector, in relation to families and residential neighborhoods. Given this confinement, they have had little direct access to the great social questions of the day. . . [They are] encouraging nostalgic attachments to former ways of life . . . and abandoning the victims of social dislocation in rapidly changing urban environments. . . They appear more interested in maintaining secure spaces which can sustain them in their attempts to cope with the daily problems of living."

Ogletree argues that any constructive thinking in Christian ethics in the future will require an ecclesial context. "If we are to be interpreters of Christian ethics in our time, we will have to give fresh attention to the church as a community capable of sustaining a distinctive moral vision of the world." A community capable of sustaining that vision seems to be exactly what is missing.

But the source of the problem is not just that congregations have become bastions of middle-class respectability; it is also the presumption of ethicists like Ogletree that they already know what "the great social questions of the day" are and that their passion for "social justice" is less accommodating to culture than are the middle-class churches Ogletree deplores. Ironically to the extent that Christian ethicists and theologians have abandoned the church because of its suburban captivity" they too have had little that is interesting to say to our society. We hope to show that the church is much more than an abstraction for Christian theological and ethical reflection: it is the source and purpose of that reflection.

In hopes of avoiding the temptation to speak only about an ideal church, we propose to examine some events in a congregation where one of us was a member. The narration of these events is meant to serve not just as an example but as an implicit argument for how Christians should think, and how seminary curriculum should be restructured to take congregational life seriously. One of the criticisms often addressed to our emphasis on the centrality of the church for Christian thought is that it ignores the political and economic realities of the church. We counter such criticism with this account of an actual congregation.

Broadway United Methodist Church in South Bend, Indiana, is in one of those sections of town that began to decline about 20 years ago but did not quite hit bottom. In the early ‘60s, when a highway was cut through a mainly black area of the city, poor, mostly black, people began to rent in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is integrated, and many young couples have begun moving back into the area, since it provides reasonably priced housing.

The church has a large building, witnessing to its once large and lively congregation. The congregation now numbers about 100 members, with Sunday attendance averaging between 40 and 60. The integration of the church in the early ‘60s. coupled with a series of unsuccessful pastorates, nearly sealed the church’s doom. Denominational executives felt there was little chance of recovery.

However, in the early ‘70s a pastor was appointed to Broadway who refused to believe the church was doomed. What others saw as a problem, he saw as an exciting possibility. By visiting the sick, organizing the church and developing an urban ministry, the pastor imbued the members of the congregation with a new sense of confidence in their value to one another and, in particular, to the neighborhood. The members became determined to do much more than survive.

About live years ago, a board meeting took place at the church. The first agenda item concerned the leaky roof over the education building. Since the church no longer had an active Sunday school, the building was used primarily by the church’s Headstart program. The necessary repairs would cost at least $5,000 -- a huge sum for the church. After much discussion, the board voted to accept the most expensive bid because that kind of roof would last the longest.

What was remarkable about this decision was what was not discussed. No one suggested that the church ought to rethink its investment in the neighborhood. No one suggested relocating in the suburbs. No one even noticed that the church, by its decision, was saying that it would rather be a presence in this neighborhood than a success elsewhere.

But the neighborhood noticed. The machinery that pulled up to the church to do the re-roofing was a sign to the neighbors that they were not to be abandoned, at least not by this church. Of course, some might suggest that the church ought to have spent money on the emergency food pantry instead. But that was not a real choice, since the building had to be maintained first if the congregation were to show its commitment to being God’s people on the southeast side of town.

The next item on the agenda seemed to have more significant ecclesiological implications. The worship committee had suggested celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday. Because of its evangelical background, the church had a tradition of celebrating the Eucharist infrequently. The new pastor, however, had gradually increased the frequency until the church was now celebrating the Eucharist almost 30 times a year. The congregation had responded favorably to this practice.

This positive attitude toward the Eucharist was due, in great part, to the patient work of the pastor. He had always been candid about his desire to have an every-Sunday Eucharist, but he never forced his will on the congregation. Through his preaching, by taking the Eucharist to many members in nursing homes and those too ill to come to church, and in countless other ways, he had helped people see how the Eucharist made caring for one another intelligible. Some undoubtedly put up with the pastor’s "highchurch views" because they loved and respected him; but they also were learning that this type of pastoral care was determined by the Eucharist.

As the board prepared to vote on the proposal, it was shocked to hear the pastor, who tended to say little at meetings, announce, "You should not vote on this." The pastor seemed to have lost all political sense. A matter for which he had worked for years was coming to a vote, which he would win, and he would not let it happen.

He explained that though it is the tradition of the church, that the Eucharist be served every Sunday, the congregation no more had the right to decide how often the Eucharist would be celebrated than to decide whether it would say the Lord’s Prayer. Both were obligations it was invited to obey or, rather, they were privileges in which the church ought to rejoice.

He then suggested that he would announce to the church that there was strong sentiment in favor of having the Eucharist every Sunday, but recognizing that there might be some who strongly dissented from this policy, he would announce a time for people to express their disagreement. If many felt strongly that such a move would make it impossible for them to continue to worship there, then, he said, the church might have to wait a little longer. Not to wait, he suggested, would belie, the very unity of the Eucharist. The board agreed. Two meetings to air views on this subject were called. Since no one came to either, the church simply began having the Eucharist every Sunday.

Though it is generally assumed that Protestant churches that favor "high-church stuff" are affluent churches that

are more aesthetically than socially aware, such was not the case at Broadway. About three months after the board meeting, the outreach committee came to the church with a proposal. Unemployment had hit the city hard, and soup kitchens had sprung up to feed the city’s poor. But the committee felt that a soup kitchen, as much good as it might do, was not what the church needed to provide. Instead, the committee suggested that since the church had learned the significance of sharing the eucharistic meal together, perhaps it could share a meal with the neighborhood. Such a meal would not be the same as the Eucharist, but at least it would express the kind of community that that meal has. made possible. The proposal was that every Sunday after worship people be invited to come to lunch.

The proposal was approved, and the church was divided into five groups, each taking responsibility to prepare the meal for one Sunday. Often between 40 and 60 people appeared for the Sunday lunch. A few who shared the meal might come to church before the lunch, but the church gained no new members from the effort. The meal made it clear that the church was not simply another social agency doing a little good, but a people called to witness to God’s presence in the world. The presence that comes in the meal sustained the church’s ability to be present in the neighborhood, a symbol that all was not lost.

First, they indicate that the disdain many theologians and ethicists have for the "middle-class" church is unjustified. This story is not fiction. It is about real people, who work at the phone company, teach school, have babies, care for sick parents and take time to come to church and attend meetings. Neither they nor the church are unique. They were simply willing to trust that God is really present in his church.

Second, this story challenges some of the most cherished distinctions that have shaped theological reflection. Is the story an example of a "church" or "sect" ethic? Were the folk of Broadway being ".priestly" or "prophetic"? Their story reminds us of what we often forget -- that "church," "sect," "priestly" and "prophetic" are not descriptive terms but ideal types, heuristic devices that can help us better understand the empirical reality. In other words, they are tools to help us tell the story of congregations like Broadway, not the only forms congregational life assumes.

Too often we let such categories get in the way of how we tell the story. It would be a distortion of what was happening at Broadway to say that the members there were acting like world-denying sectarians. It is true that the members were not trying to develop an ethic sufficient to sustain an entire civilization; but neither did they see themselves as "withdrawing" from their social order. Many in the church understood themselves to be politically conservative and would have been shocked at any suggestion that they were social radicals.

Their understanding that their first task as a church was to be faithful rather than effective also calls for a reconsideration of Ogletree’s "great social questions of the day." Because the church was congregationally concerned, it was also active in the neighborhood, and that meant that, it cared about what was happening in city politics. The church knew that the diversity of neighborhood activities contributed to its own life. If the church was "sectarian," it was strangely so.

Yet, though all this may be true, these "points" may still not seem to add up to anything substantive for understanding theological education. After all, few theologians do their work by using examples like this one. Since the Enlightenment, examples have been relegated to the level of anecdotes: they don’t constitute real knowledge or evidence. Practical knowledge is ignored. To make the congregation a central concern for theological education, we need a new pedagogical strategy that assumes that theology is a form of practical knowledge.

What difference does this story make for theological education? It reminds us that one of the essential tasks that the theologian-ethicist at the seminary performs is to help pastors, and through them congregations like Broadway, to appreciate the significance of their common acts. The way we have told the story of the board meeting is not the way most who were at the meeting might have told it. They might not have seen the decision to reroof the education building as a theological statement.

We are not suggesting that every church needs to have a theologian to help it discover the theological and ethical significance of its everyday activities. Given the convictions of many contemporary theologians, churches, like some Indian tribes in America that threw out anthropologists because they felt that the scholars’ interpretative frameworks distorted their experience, might also have reason to throw theologians out. We are suggesting (with George Lindbeck and others) that it is the task of those committed to the theological enterprise to develop the linguistic skills that can help congregations better understand the common but no less theologically significant activities that constitute their lives.

We suspect that much of the difficulty of current church life, and our corresponding theology, is that we have not paid serious attention to how hard it is rightly to understand the common things we do as Christians -- such as pray, baptize, eat meals, rejoice at birth, grieve at illness and death, reroof church buildings. Lacking the ability to describe theologically the significance of these activities, we distort what we do by resorting to descriptions and explanations all too readily provided by our culture. Any explanation is to be preferred to no explanation.

This process occurs at both crude and sophisticated levels. When asked why they go to church, many people say that there they meet the kind of people they really like (people like themselves) or that the church helps their kids learn morals. No doubt such explanations are partly true, but they may also be formulas for self-deception, causing us to miss the miraculous fact that we are there to worship God. At a more sophisticated level, we have learned to use sociological and psychological explanations to "understand" (that is, manipulate and scientifically manage) the church. As a result, clergy are often more adept at giving sociological accounts of church life than they are at helping their congregations appreciate that it is the presence of God that makes their life possible.

It is not as if those who specialize in Scripture are more guilty than those of us who work in theology, ethics or liturgy. Indeed, we suspect that the very distinction between theology, ethics and liturgy reflects the seminary’s adoption of inappropriate academic models of compartmentalization and a failure to take seriously the liturgical life of congregations as central to our educative task.

It is a hopeful sign that many (Geoffrey Wainwright, Craig Dykstra, John Westerhoff and others) are attempting to recover liturgy as central to our theological work and that ethicists are discussing the liturgical shaping of the moral life. But we cannot be satisfied with this. Too often discussions about the relation of theology and liturgy become but another attempt by intellectuals to relieve their boredom with the scholarly paradigms that currently rule their discipline. A focus on the formative power of the liturgy may become but another "interest" of some intellectuals, which will have the usual short run at the seminary box office.

That is why the example of Broadway is important. That congregation was so formed and disciplined by the liturgy that an extraordinary social witness was possible. The congregation’s life belies distinctions between theology and liturgy, ethics and liturgy. The meal they prepare every Sunday for the neighborhood is not an expression of their social or ethical commitments in distinction from their liturgical life; the meal they prepare and the Eucharist they celebrate are parts of a single story. The theological task is to help us and them understand why that is the case.

We send seminarians out to do "fieldwork" presuming that it is good to move developing pastors from the ‘theoretical" to the "practical." We thus set up a false dichotomy between theological concerns and the ‘‘real life" of the church. No wonder many seminarians complain that their congregations fail to meet their theological ideals. Because seminarians have been trained by theologians who are more shaped by their graduate school training than by their ecclesial identification -- they see themselves as process thinkers or Barthians rather than as Baptists or Episcopalians -- we have seminarians who attempt to make congregations fit the images of their theological allegiances rather than trying to respond to the theological resources of the congregation.

Many seminarians will become pastors who are either cynical about the gap between the "true" and the "false" church or who quickly jettison their theology and settle down with "things as they are" in the congregation, offering the congregation no better interpretation of its common life than the mere need for organizational maintenance.

But what if we in the seminary do not know the questions that a "true" church should be asking? Does our theological education appear "theoretical" because we have neglected the most basic theological task -- to form a visible people who have listened to a different story from that of the world? That form of listening is a liturgical activity -- an active embodiment of and response to Scripture -- which defies separation into the "theoretical" and the "practical."

The emphasis on the congregation for rethinking seminary education, if it is to be productive, requires seminaries and their faculties to recognize that their legitimacy depends on how well they help congregations to eat and drink with Jesus. The seminary’s task is to tell seminarians the many stories of congregations, past and present, that constitute the table of Jesus. That may be why, in spite of appearances to the contrary, the study of the New Testament and of church history often provides the most practical long-term help for pastors. In studying those topics they learn about many a congregation’s life, and they learn too that there are alternatives to the merely contemporary and local stories of a church.

The task of theology is to help the churches tell and share their stories truthfully. Just as the people at Broadway learned that they must share their separate stories through their participation in the Eucharist, so those of us charged to be theologians must continue that task among the many churches. That does not mean that we are "just story tellers"; it does mean that without stories such as that of Broadway, all of the scholarship and intellectual skills of our seminaries make little sense.


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