News and Events
Friends of Pepperdine University Dinner May 3, 2001
"A Church for All Seasons: On Being the Body of Christ in the New Millennium"by Provost Darryl Tippens
Introduction: The Church in Tribulation
The church faces daunting challenges today, as it always has. And, as always, the church is called to have faith as she faces her trials. Jesus predicted our difficulty. He told the disciples, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
But for many of us, the quantity and velocity of the change causes us great anxiety. I need not steal your time to rehearse the countless forces that are reshaping our world. The technological, economic, consumer, and entertainment changes are producing a massive shift in how we live our lives, how we function as families, how we do work, how we receive our educations, indeed, in how we view ourselves. All our frontiers are porous, it seems. The boundaries blur at the individual, communal, and international levels.
With the new census figures pouring forth daily, we see in bold relief just how culturally diverse America has become. We are not a melting pot, but a complex mosaic of ethnicities. Caucasian numbers are in a statistical decline. Former majorities are learning what it is like to sit in one small boat in a great multicultural sea. Diversity is here. Whether it’s 24-7 operating hours, the Internet, “reality TV” (which I take to be an oxymoron), or a pandemic consumerism – you and I know that life is significantly different from what it was in our childhood or in the days of our parents.
The simple life – if ever it was simple – is over and done with. Unless you perform a willful act of blindness, unless you retreat into the desert, and try living “off the grid,” you must daily contend with this dazzling, dizzying postmodern world at every turn. Today’s Christian adults are spiritual links between two vastly different worlds, one dying, one being born. How are we to negotiate this inevitable change?
Churches of Christ, as we know them, are the product of multiple forces – Scripture, yes. But we’re also the product of a particular cultural moment. Many of the trappings of our congregational life derive from a very particular 19th century, primarily rural, Southern milieu. We can be proud of our Southern, agrarian roots. Everything has to come from somewhere. But the questions loom: Now that our “founding culture” is passing away, what are we to do? Can our movement translate itself and thrive? Can it find a voice, an idiom, that will speak to a 21st century, postmodern, urban culture? As we stand before, or shall we say in, the emerging culture, what are our options?
We can resist. We can capitulate. Or we can dialogue. I won’t hold you in suspense. I believe that resistance and capitulation are fatally flawed options. Let me try to explain why.
Resistance comes in two primary forms: fleeing and fighting. For some terrified Christians, flight seems the only safe option. If they do not literally pull up stakes and head to the mountains, they practice the moral equivalent. They seal up their church’s windows and pretend that nothing is outside.
Of course, this desperate action promises success in the short run, yet it is really a disguised form of capitulation. It implies that Christianity is weak, unable to stand up against the ideas of the current age. It often proves its greatest weakness when it tries to replicate itself in the next generation. Detached from current culture in which our youth reside – the version of faith offered to the children of the next generation seems anemic, quaint, irrelevant, and finally incomprehensible. It simply “doesn’t make sense.”
Sigmund Freud once criticized the otherworldly types who want to “fall off the earth.” It won’t do. We are not only souls bound for heaven; we are creatures of this earth too – we are all “adam”, of the soil, bound to this world. This is why Jesus said, “You must be in the world, though not of it.” Being “in the world”, if it means anything, means paying attention to local culture – and that includes the culture of our children.
One notable church leader recently recommended the banishment of “youth culture” altogether, including all youth ministry from our churches. But youth culture, for all its problems, cannot be banished by fiat, even if we wish it would go away. Christianity has to work within the culture at hand, or it loses its power and purpose. One might argue that a Christianity divorced from culture is not Christianity.
If flight is problematic, so is capitulation. We must be ever careful not to sell out to culture, to “go native.” The darkness is great, and we must stand over against the spirit of the age and speak with prophetic courage against the darkness. Yet we must proceed with care, for not every cultural difference is “of the devil.”
We may take our cue from our best missionaries who wisely learn to separate what is culturally different from what is truly sinister. If we do not spend much time in the Word and in serious personal reflection – if we do not critique our own culture of origin, if we do not expose our own ethnocentrism – then we will confuse our own cultural preferences with the everlasting Gospel.
The history of missions is littered with failed efforts in which one’s home culture was imperiously thrust on indigenous peoples as “the gospel way,” the only way. If this can happen abroad, it can happen locally. Once we had to travel abroad to experience the foreign; now the alien meets us on our own doorstep.
Because America has become a homeland to many cultures, all of us are now required to undergo the confusion and vertigo that used only to come to foreign travelers. Now it happens in Nashville, Houston, or Seattle. And it happens in our own houses – a Gen X or Gen Y teenager may seem as foreign to us as a Chechen or a Fin or a Peruvian.
Restorationists have a venerable history of fighting. And so fighting cultural change comes to us naturally. But our panic may cause us to shoot at the wrong things. Some are so seized by fear that they shoot at anything that moves. We used to call ourselves a “movement.” A movement, by definition, is something that “moves.” Yet there is so much transition that change itself becomes the enemy. Calling someone a “change agent” is like calling someone a “Commie” in the 50’s.
And movement becomes intrinsically suspect, threatening. Yet the law of biology is this: change or die. Tragically, those who are paralyzed by fear of change have signed their own death warrants. Not to grow is necessarily to die. “In order to stay the same, a thing must change often,” wrote John Henry Newman.
Of course, I hope you can sense that I am leading to a point. Can the Restoration churches birthed in the 19th century enjoy a prosperous life in the 21st? My answer is, “Yes, of course!” We have excellent options. In the April 16 issue of Newsweek, Kenneth Woodward offers a fascinating glimpse into the future of Christianity around the world.
As you may know, various Christian groups are thriving in Latin America, Africa, Korea and in former Soviet bloc nations. The fervor and vitality of Christianity worldwide staggers the imagination. In Lagos, Nigeria, last November, 6,000,000 attended a single revival! Put that beside the great American revivals such as Cane Ridge and tell me if Christianity is vital today or not.
Explosive growth is not only a foreign phenomenon. We can spot growing, healthy vibrant congregations all around us. Indeed, we can already see the outlines of the future of Churches of Christ delineated in its many flourishing congregations. So, while many churches are in decline, many others are finding their voice, their vision, and their mission; and they getting a hearing in their respective cultures. And, let it be noted, they are enjoying success, not by abandoning their Scriptural principles, but by returning to the Bible with a new fervor. They have learned that there must be a church for all seasons and climes.
To summarize, let me suggest that we are living in a time of extraordinary change. If change implies threat, it also declares opportunity. It is no different than when that first small sect of Jesus-followers crossed the boundaries of Palestine for the first time, entering the strange worlds of Asia Minor, North Africa, Greece, and Rome. To cross the frontiers and flourish, the first Christians quickly learned how to speak the Good News in the idiom of the people.
Foreign dialects like Aramaic and Hebrew don’t go over very well in urbane Corinth and Rome – and neither do the 19th-century dialects of our tradition communicate well in the capitals of Europe or L.A., for that matter. This is a time to find new ways of being the church that are faithful simultaneously to Scripture and to our particular social context. What might that look like? For a few minutes, I would like to suggest some essential features of a faithful, vibrant church in the new millennium.
1. Imaging the Body of Christ
First, the church must re-imagine itself. The metaphors that we use to describe ourselves shape and constrain us in powerful ways. Structural and institutional language has its place, but it has its limits. Even the metaphor “restoration,” good as it is, can suggest that “building the church” is simply a matter of getting the “structure” right.
For too long we have been bound by “structuralist” language and images. It is time for the church to become “post-structuralist.” The ancient church saw itself as more than a structure. It viewed itself as a living body – indeed, as a visible expression of Christ on the earth. And each member was meant to be the locus, the place, where the Spirit of Christ quite literally dwelt.
Each person, then, was called not just to be a constituent of an organization, but to be a vital organ in a body. A life force flows through a body; otherwise, it is a cadaver. The Body of Christ is alive on earth – literally, not figuratively – and each of us composes this living, spirit-breathed Body. And being the Body of Christ, we are to look like Jesus. This is crucial, for Jesus Christ is the most charismatic, the most magnetic, figure who ever walked the earth. Thus, when we begin to look like him, people will be drawn to Him through us.
One of the most stirring verses in the Bible is 1 John 4:17: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the Day of Judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” This is a most amazing claim. “As he is, so are we in this world!” If we members of the Churches of Christ ever discover what these words mean, we will be a transformed people, capable of transforming our world.
The goal of the Christian life is to be transformed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another. Ours is not just a restoration project; but a regeneration project. We are not here merely to reconstruct an “institution.” We are here to become the Body of Christ. Talk of “information” must yield to talk of “formation.” Emphasis upon individuality must give way to images of cooperation, nurturance, and community. Exclusivity must be replaced by inclusivity.
Because we are a body, we must stop trying to vote people off the island. Instead, we say with Paul, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). In this way we mirror the infinite variety of the human body – many, yet one. More importantly, we mirror Christ himself: “As he is, so are we in this world.”
2. Revisioning Christ and Culture
Second, we will rethink our relationship to culture. Culture is not the enemy of God. Indeed, God is the author of human culture. So, we return to Scripture to see how it speaks afresh to our culture. The Bible, though written within a particular culture, has always had this paradoxical genius about it – it stands above any and all cultures and critiques them. Yet it also shows how every human culture can be a home for the gospel. One doesn’t have to strip herself of culture to become a believer. Rather, one learns how that Christianity is infinitely translatable into any and all cultures.
We might do well to return to one of our church’s “foundation texts”, Acts 2, for an inspiring example. On Pentecost, many language groups, nationalities, and ethnicities were gathered in Jerusalem. Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Jews, and Arabs responded together to that first Gospel sermon.
From the beginning, then, the church was amazingly diverse. Think with me for a moment about all these people standing before Peter that day. Do you think they all looked alike, talked alike, dressed alike, thought alike? Certainly not. They had many customs, different ideas about dress and holidays and holy days, different opinions about food and drink. And when they went home to establish new congregations – in Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch, and Rome – do you think their worship assemblies looked alike? It hardly seems likely. Yet they were one in Christ.
And so today, if the Churches of Christ are to be alive and growing – shall I say it? – they must become global and multicultural in spirit and in character. This is not PC, Politically Correct; this is PC, Purely Christian. “As he is, so are we in this world.”
3. Following the Way of Humiliation
For the Church to thrive in the third millennium, something else must happen. We must rediscover and reappropriate the central ethical theme of the Christian life, which is called “kenosis” by the theologians. Essentially, this is the way of the Cross, the downward way modeled by Jesus. This is radical humility, radical self-emptying. This is dying to self. The way of Christ is not easy. The emptying of the self is, indeed, the hardest thing to do of all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it best, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Unfortunately, it has been possible in the past for figures to become recognized as powerful leaders in our congregations and in our movement without being kenotic models – without pouring out their lives in humble obedience. They attained power, and we admired their displays of force.
“It shall not be so among you,” says Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [poured himself out], taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:5-7). This is our call, brothers and sisters: “As he is, so are we in this world.”
Rest assured, when the Body of Christ walks the earth, pouring itself out for the sake of broken humanity, people will notice. It is precisely this feature of Christianity that is most appealing to the masses in under-developed nations of the world. Why this stunning explosion of growth of the church around the world?
Guess what? It is kenotic Christianity that is drawing the converts by the millions. Christianity is, once again, becoming “a religion mainly of the poor, the marginalized, the powerless and – in parts of Asia and the Middle East – the oppressed,” reports Kenneth Woodward. If you are an untouchable in India, or a starving child of the streets of Sao Paulo, or a despairing victim of AIDS in South Africa, the story of the King of the Universe who renounces all trappings of power and glory to become a slave and criminal in order to save the world is powerful.
If Churches of Christ are to be the saving force, salt and light, we will have to walk in Jesus’ steps. We will take up the towel and basin. We will become the servant of all. We will identify with the poor. “As he is, so are we in this world.” A central challenge for the leaders of our churches is to figure out how to restore this central message of radical humility and self-emptying.
One way it might be restored is to rediscover great models of humility, both inside and outside the fold of Churches of Christ. The ancient church took notice of great kenotic lives – the saints and martyrs – that is, the “witnesses” to sacrificial faith. Our most visible leaders have too often not been known for their humility. Our editor-bishops once ruled with iron pens. Even some of our great Christian university leaders in the past were known, not for their radical humility, but for their unbending authoritarianism. Thank God that day is passing away. Now we must find and celebrate new models of leadership more in line with the life of our Master. “As he is, so are we in this world.”
Where are the great kenotic heroes of our faith? I think of two in particular: David Lipscomb. To many of us, Lipscomb is a great figure who helped stand against the errors of the “progressives” who wanted to change worship. But there is much more to the man.
Consider what Lipscomb did in 1873. Nashville had been hit with a devastating plague. In June alone, 500 citizens died from cholera. The disease particularly devastated blacks. Many just abandoned the city in fear. Lipscomb himself was not well; he could have easily retreated to safety at Bell’s End, his farm, well outside the city. Instead, Lipscomb entered the houses where the cholera had struck to nurse the victims back to health.
And he urged members of the Church of Christ to do the same. He wrote, “It is a time that should call out the full courage and energy of the church in looking after the needy. Every individual, white or black, that dies from neglect and want of proper food and nursing, is a reproach to the professors of the Christian religion in the vicinity of Nashville.” (My thanks to Richard Hughes for bringing this episode to my attention.) “As he is, so are we in this world.”
I also think of Robert Richardson who has been all but erased from Restoration history, but to my mind, the spiritual superior to Alexander Campbell. Fired by Campbell at Bethany College for going too far and too deep in his spirituality, then rehired by Campbell because Richardson was so indispensable to Campbell’s mission, Richardson was a powerful spiritual force in the early Restoration movement. He was also a man of extraordinary wisdom, humility, and spiritual sensitivity, penning the greatest devotional book in our movement, Communings in the Sanctuary. It is a book that calls us to follow Jesus with all our hearts.
Of course, our history is marked by similar spiritual greats. In our own time, there are similar heroes of faith who could easily function as kenotic mentors, if we would but stop and notice. Many of these great models of humble faith, not incidentally, are women. At least half the church is composed of women – perhaps well more than half – but the general silence about the contributions of women to our spiritual history is a scandal yet to be corrected. Our great women of faith are deserving of our notice, gratitude, and emulation.
If we look outside our own fold, we find amazing portraits of radical self-sacrifice in people like Francis of Assissi or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One might consider the thousands of Christian martyrs about us today. More people have died for their faith in the 20th century, than in the previous nineteen centuries, some authorities report. These stories of amazing sacrifice need to be preserved.
“In remembrance lies the secret of redemption,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov. When you consider that the King of the Universe poured himself out, emptied himself for the sake of others, and others have taken his pattern of behavior as their own model, you have to be amazed. And you have to imitate him: “As he is, so are we in this world.”
4. Rediscovering Our History
Finally, let me say what I have implied throughout this discourse. We can become the living Body of Christ into the third millennium only if we remember. And when we remember well, we will necessarily know our history. “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child,” said Cicero. Could our shameful neglect of our own cultural past account for some of our adolescent tantrums in the church? The most spiritual people are those with a firm recollection of their past, their present, and therefore the possibilities of hope in the future.
Consider Jesus in the Upper Room on that dark evening before his crucifixion. Having loved his disciples “to the end” (to the uttermost), “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet…” (John 13:1-4).
There is much to notice in this extraordinary text, but in conclusion I wish to draw our attention to the simple phrases that precede the great act of foot washing. Notice Jesus’ historical awareness. Before he took the cloth and the basin, what did he know? What was he thinking? First, he knew his place in time. He knew what had gone before. He knew where he had come from. And he knew where he was going. Jesus was living out a magnificent plot, holy history. Here is the important thing: Jesus knew just what to do in the present because he had the past and the future already worked out.
Here is our lesson. We are often perplexed about the present. What are we supposed to be doing now? The answer is clear if you know your beginning and ending. The chapter you are presently in makes perfect sense if you already know what went before and what follows.
We are like Jesus. We also know where we came from. We came from God. We also know where we are going. We are returning to God. And we also know that all things have been delivered into the Son’s hands. If these things are so, then we know just what to do in the present: we wash feet.
The future of Churches of Christ in the third millennium should not be in doubt. We are here to walk the kenotic path with our Savior. “As he is, so are we in this world.”