Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age (2): Sources of Wisdom

Gordon Smith

In part one of this series on “Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age,” we explored the cultural situation in which the church finds itself today. As the church seeks to live faithfully in this age, there are at least four potential sources of wisdom for the church of our generation that could provide significant guidance and resources for ministerial formation.

Prophetic Witness

The social and cultural location of the church can appropriately be compared to that of the experience of the people of Judah when they were in exile. Thus, we should read the prophets, for they spoke and wrote during the period of the exile—the Babylonian captivity. Ezekiel and Daniel were actually a part of the exile, but I am thinking here as well of others, including Jeremiah and Isaiah whose writings took account of the exile. Of course, seminary students need to immerse themselves in the whole of the Scriptures and know how to read the Bible from Genesis to the Revelation. But I am wondering, if in our time, particular attention should be given to the prophets. They are always relevant, but they may be particularly relevant for our times.

This reading would give ministerial students at least three perspectives. First, there is the vision for the city, captured best by the words of Jer 29. We engage the city because we seek the flourishing of the societies of which we are a part.

Second, there is an appreciation of the vital place of economic justice in the witness of the church. Worship and witness have no credibility without a commitment to economic justice (See Isa 58). Thus, the great observation by Nicholas Wolterstorff that for the OT prophets, there is no holiness without justice and no justice without economic justice (Justice: Right and Wrongs [Princeton University Press, 2010]: 83). So frequently, our notions of holiness become little more than morality. While moral depth and integrity is essential, the prophets remind us that it is not a true morality if it is not reflected in a commitment to economic justice.

I am struck by this in my own context. My religious tradition tends to emphasize how secular society challenges our biblical and traditional understandings of human sexuality, gender, and marriage. And yet, for the OT prophets, while not an incidental topic or theme, this is not the defining question when it comes to what it means to be the people of God in exile. This leads me to wonder: Should questions of human sexuality be the critical and defining boundary marker between the faith of the Christian church and the society at large?

Rather, might the witness of the prophets suggest that what defines the church, in such a time as this, is a deep commitment to social justice, works of mercy, and advocacy for those at the margins of our society? If so, it would radically change the way the church is perceived in the society at large. So much of contemporary Evangelical worship actually tends toward escapist theology rather than empowering God’s people to attend to the social and economic structures in which they live and work. Isaiah 58 suggests that this is deeply incongruous.

Third, there are the remarkable words of Isa 43:2. These words remind those who go into exile that as they go through the waters, they will not be overcome. When they go through the fire we will not be burned, for the very simple reason that the Lord will be with them and will go through the exile with them. We must learn to know and live with a consciousness of God’s presence in a very different social and cultural context. For the people of Judah, the presence of God would look and feel very different during their time in Babylon but God would be there. In like manner, the Spirit of God is no less present in our society; it is merely that we need to develop the eyes to see and discern his presence.

The pre-Christendom Church

If the church is to be an effective witness in a post-Christendom world, then we should give particular attention to the wisdom from the pre-Christendom church.

Of course, we are students of the entire history of the church and our theological vision and perspective should be informed by an immersion in this history—the story—of the church from the 1st to the 20th century. An MDiv without a strong emphasis in church history is devoid of a crucial building block in ministerial formation. And yet, for our generation, rather than privileging the 16th and the 18th centuries—the Protestant Reformation and the Great Awakenings—we may want to broaden the scope of our study. Perhaps, today it is crucial to study the Patristics—the study of the Fathers and the early Church—more than ever. Perhaps for students who are going to serve the church in a post-Christendom age, we need to learn what it means to draw on the wisdom of the early Church prior to the conversion of Constantine. Such a reading and immersion would provide contemporary ministry students with at least three helpful perspectives.

  1. It would help the student transcend some of the divisions, polarizations, and debates that, while pertinent perhaps in the 16th and the 18th centuries, are quite simply not relevant now. They are, at most, of incidental interest. They might help explain our situation but they do not justify it. Our age needs to consider how the early Church was fully sacramental, and at the same time, affirming of a deep interiority. I have suggested elsewhere that we need to be Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal, and this insistence that it is not one, but all three to which we are called. In part, this is informed by what seems to emerge from the witness of the early Church. I should just note in passing that I am amazed at those Christian communities that still insist that 16th century polarities in the church—and to some degree 18th century divisions—should still define Christian debates and disagreements in our day.
  2. It will mean that the church must develop a renewed appreciation for the creedal character of our faith and witness, including our reading of the Scriptures. We must avoid the Biblicism that has become somewhat rampant in recent Evangelical circles. Affirming the creedal heritage of the church gives us a better anchor—or, better said, a more consistent and dependable authority for the life and witness of the church. In affirming the creeds as central to the faith of the church we avoid many of the points of division or schism that so easily divide us.
  3. It would call for a return to the idea of initiation into the Christian faith. Here I would speak to the remarkable work that the Roman Catholic Church has done on rites of initiation, evident in the RCIA (i.e., Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults). This is simply a brilliant document and practice—a process—for initiation into Christian faith that is a conscious attempt to take ancient pre-Christendom wisdom and bring it to bear in the life and practice of the contemporary church. I would also add that this would require a full restoration of the catechumenate. Here, the catechesis of our children would be viewed as an essential way by which we live out the life of the church.

Historic Minority Churches

Although this situation—to be the church in a post-Christendom age—may be unique to us, the church has always, somewhere at least, lived with the challenge or reality of being a minority presence. There have always been segments of the church that have been a minority Christian presence and have learned how to thrive and how to be an effective witness even though in the minority. This may be a relatively new development for the church in Western Europe and North America but this is not so much the case for many global Christian communities.

For example, take the historic Christian churches in the Middle East—Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and India. In these nations or regions of the world, where Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism is the dominant religious presence, there has always been a church that has not merely survived, but actually thrived as a minority presence.

As the church in the West engages this kind of context, it should humbly recognize that it has something to learn from those for whom this is nothing new. Perhaps this means that as part of our theological formation, we should actually visit the church in Lebanon or Pakistan or Turkey. As we visit as learners, we can ask how the church has and can be faithful to the gospel, and also live with integrity, grace, and resilience in such a time or situation.

What might we learn from this voice or source?

For starters, we might come to learn what it means to be the persecuted church. The church in the West has more or less assumed that persecution is the mark of the church. The church far away, not the church in the West, has actually experienced it. Increasingly we need to learn from the witness of the martyrs. We need to learn that this witness can inform our own faith and practice. This means that we learn, in the language of 1 Peter, to know persecution, even find blessing in the suffering, because we are doing right (3:14). We must be wise and discerning and not claim that we are being persecuted when we are less than astute. We must avoid the claim that we are being persecuted when we are simply being less than wise.

Second, although there are certainly those in such situations who choose to see themselves as embattled warriors against the dominant religious or ideological voice of their region or nation, it is my impression that these minority Christian communities are significantly effective in faithful witness. They choose to live as good neighbors, good citizens, who seek common cause with those of other religious or ideological conviction. For example, take Lebanon, where there are Christian groups that demonize Islam. I wonder if it is more fruitful to do what others have and are doing: to actually view Islam as a potential ally. What if we learned together and from one another, to advocate together with civic authorities for what both religious traditions recognize as both a crucial human and societal value. There is a theological school just outside of Beirut, for example, that has an annual Christian-Islam dialogue, with local imams invited to the campus for conversation and shared learning. Interestingly, this is viewed not as a threat to Christian identity but as an essential part of living faithfully as a minority presence in Lebanon.

Third, I could here also echo the comments made about the early Church: The passing on of the faith from one generation to the next takes on particular urgency. We would learn to become masters of nurturing our children in the faith when the society at large does not in any way reinforce that teaching. Thus, to stress again, it may mean that we recover the ancient practice of catechesis.

In the end, I wonder if our ministerial formation needs to include actual visits to minority churches where we come as learners. I also wonder if our curriculum should include the written works and publications from this social and cultural context—that is, works that are clearly written from the margins of a society. Maybe we should be reading Indian and Middle Eastern theologians and spiritual writers. For myself, as I young pastor, I discovered the work of Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese theologian who spent many years in Thailand. I offer this as but one example of such a voice or perspective.

Current Secular Settings

Another source of learning and wisdom comes from the church in those regions or societies that are already secular—perhaps, they have been so for quite some time.

In particular, I am thinking of the church in Central and Western Europe—societies where the Christian faith was perhaps a given, a dominant presence. It may have even been the “state religion,” but now church buildings have become mere artifacts of a previous golden age. Recently I was in conversation with a pastor who moved to Canada from a pastoral appointment in Amsterdam. I was struck by his comment: “I have seen our future.” He is but one pointing to the reality that those of us doing ministry in North America would do well to learn from those who are ahead of us on the curve towards secularism. The church, now residing in a post-Christian society, must learn what it looks like to sustain vitality in its worship and its witness.

Perhaps, we could benefit from reading Thomas Halik—from the Czech Republic—with his keen insights into the nature of faith in this kind of social context (Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an age of Uncertainty [Image, 2012]).

Perhaps we should attend to the wisdom of former Archbishop Rowan Williams, especially his call for the church to eschew violence. His work on Fyodor Dostoevski (Dostoevski: Language, Faith and Fiction [Baylor University Press, 2011]) and his The Truce of God (Eerdmans, 2015) make a powerful case that our greatest enemy is not the society in which we live, but our own fear. The greatest enemy of the church is not external to us, but internal to us. Indeed, fear is insidious, cutting the nerve of creativity, innovation, and imagination.

Perhaps, we ought to re-read the work of Soren Kierkegaard from the 19th century. His discussion of the nature of faith is more relevant today than ever.

Finally, the most pertinent voice in this regard, as many have recognized, is that of Bishop Leslie Newbigin. His Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989) is but one of his many powerful contributions to this conversation. It reflects the wisdom from both life and ministry in India, a perspective from a minority position and the vantage point of post-Christian Europe.

[This essay is an adapted and revised version of an original essay written by Gordon T. Smith, “Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age: Equipping Clergy and Laity for the Church in Exile,” Didache: Faithful Teaching 16:2 (2016). ISSN: 15360156 (web version)– Used by permission. Copyright (c) 2016 by Gordon T. Smith.]

Posted Apr 16, 2018