by José Francisco Morales Jr., Director of Pastoral Formation (Claremont) -
“If we see man [sic.] in and for himself, and therefore without his fellows, we do not see him at all… If we do not realize and take into account from the very onset, from the first glance or word, the fact that he has a neighbor, we do not see him at all.” —Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
“Assembly required”—Rev. Virzola Law, Preacher at General Assembly 2017
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” —Isaiah 43.19
Gathering—assembling, coming together—is a pretty big deal. You see, we were created to be together: to gather, to commune, to relate with others. This is why theologian Karl Barth insists that we as humans do not merely exist; rather, we co-exist, we exist-in-relation. Hence to understand ourselves, we must see that we “[have] a neighbor” (Barth). We are built for assembling. As one of the awesome preachers at General Assembly, Pastor Virzola Law, declared: When it comes to the church, “assembly is required.”
When we gather, we are not only being good Christians, we are being good humans. When we come together, we are able to see ourselves fully, honestly, as we are. At our General Assembly in Indianapolis [hereafter, “GA”], we got to “see” ourselves fully and honestly, both in our brokenness and our blessedness. And from this gathered vision, we were able to see some things anew and more clearly, than if we just stayed in our individual communities of faith.
Now, I am sure that from this gathered place, many and each saw various things in varying ways. Here, I like to share what I saw and observed—maybe as a way to spark further conversation.
1) Although the GA attendance numbers remained low, the energy and fire in our gathering spoke of new life.
In the Disciples church world, we have wondered if the church is dying. And in our “eulogy,” we tend to point to GA attendance. Yet, even though the numbers this year remained low, what I discerned from our time together was a fresh energy rushing through us and a new fire kindling in us. Whether it was in the activism we partook in or led, or in the connections made around shared passions for evangelism or justice or stewardship, there is indeed a growth taking place in us and through us.
Maybe we need to rethink the “numbers” and move from measuring the sum (addition) to measuring the product (multiplication), from how we add up to how our witness multiplies when we are one. This is a shift from quantity to quality, from success (a notion foreign to Jesus) to faithfulness (Jesus’ brand of math). Faithfulness shifts the focus from butts on the pews to feet on the streets, from counting heads to extending arms.
2) We need to reframe the theological discussions that most divide us as a movement.
Whether it was protests over “ridiculously politicized” sermons or grievances toward worship songs about “the blood of Jesus” that were not “social justice enough,” our theological tensions once again resurfaced at General Assembly (as they tend to every two years). It is not easy to plan worship at a denominational gathering for a church as diverse as ours (thank you, GA worship committee), let alone to preach at one. (Trust me, I know.) We each bring our reflections and experiences on God, Jesus, salvation, the Spirit and the Church, and how all this should inform the way Christians individually and collectively live in the world.
Some people were troubled by these debates (at times heated) on social media over the the theological content of our time together at General Assembly. I, for one, found it refreshing. The first generations of Disciples recognized that engaged debate—especially with those with whom we disagree—makes the church strong, not weak. I am glad that conversations about our most cherish “asset,” i.e. our shared faith, were sparked at GA. I pray that it continues.
I do recommend two things though. One, the problem with online “discussions” is that they do not allow us to look at each other in the eyes while we passionately disagree with one another. What we share boldly from the safe “distance” of the virtual world, we should share just as boldly in person. This is how we can truly hear each other and grow closer together. For transforming theological reflection, assembly is indeed required. And two, we need to stop depending on our pre-set labels to frame our conversations. We tend to throw around labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” without ever asking if these labels are not in actuality distorting our engagement and hampering our ability to listen.
3) Because of #1 and #2, it is safe to say that theological education is indispensable.
The work we do at DSF and with our partner schools still matters. It is indispensable work, an essential part of remaining faithful as a movement. A good theological education equips us for the tough yet loving conversations that we the church needs to have, if our faith is to remain fresh and active. Furthermore, the development of a “theological mind” provides for us the lenses needed to see the Spirit blowing in our midst, and to see the growth the Spirit is germinating amidst what seems to be withering away.
I am reminded of these words in Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43.19). Yes, low attendance on Sunday mornings and at GA does feel like wasteland, a desert. Yet, with God in the equation, new things emerge, even in the midst of zeros. We are called not to fabricate that newness, but to “perceive” it and to reorder our lives around it.
Although the journey of theological education is rigorous, its goal is singular: we want to help form a vision that can “see” God at work. Our “heart” at DSF, our passion and desire, is simply this: we equip leaders to “see.” And we begin this visionary quest by gathering leaders together. Because to see deeply, we need to gather—assembly required!
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"