[D]mergent and Stone/Campbell Heritage


We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery

Why do I care about [D]mergent?  I believe that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), because of its historical and theological roots, finds itself uniquely positioned among mainline denominations when it comes to talk of emergence.  People, especially younger people, view the church with suspicion.  To many, the church represents a desperate organization that has failed to live out the compelling claims of the gospel, settling instead for attempts at institutional relevance and stagnant orthodoxies.  There is more going on, I fear, than can be fixed by slick marketing campaigns or by becoming conversant in the latest trends in church growth dogma.  One of these things—suspicion of religious structures— lies outside the church’s control—a fact I take to be a good thing.  I believe [D]mergent has an opportunity to contribute to a conversation that will allow for an imaginative re-envisioning of what it means to follow Jesus in this new millennium, unencumbered by an unhealthy view of church structure as an end pursued for its own sake.

While I don’t claim to be a scholar of the emerging/ent trajectories in ecclesiology, I do know that distrust of institutions and structures is one of its defining characteristics.  We mainliners have spoken for years about, at least what appeared to us to be, the deplorable lack of denominational loyalty—especially among the young.  We’ve bemoaned this state of affairs variously as a failure of education, evangelism, and worship “style,” or as the decline of clerical vocations, or as the intransigence of the Functional Church model (in which churches have organizational charts that look curiously like Jesus-y versions of the organizational charts for John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil).  And though all of these things, and more besides, are partly to blame for the rapid decline of mainline denominations as the cultural “cool kids,” the fact remains that even were we to get all of these things right (whatever that means), it is by no means a settled matter that the church could recapture its relevance as a cultural heavyweight circa 1950 (or even if it did, that we should consider that a good thing).  But that fact should not dishearten Disciples of Christ, who were founded by people suspicious of religious institutions.

The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, a foundational document for Disciples, frames an understanding of the church as less concerned with particular lines of demarcation or institutional structures than with living in unity.  Disciples have long borne some latent embarrassment for taking 150 years to arrive at the denominational party; but our relative newness may allow us to grasp hold of the trappings of denominationalism less tightly.  Rather than expending our energy in fortifying structures to organize ministry, we could be devoting ourselves to ministering.  Denominational structures are only ministry delivery systems, after all.  The cry I hear from those people who no longer view the church as viable, often focuses on the amount of time and resources the church wastes propping up bureaucracy.  People are not breaking down the doors of the church in search of committee work, seeking to keep something alive they didn’t make and in which they have little investment.

We in the church can’t control this allergy to traditional organization, which seems to afflict more and more people.  However, we will be making a big mistake if we continue to act as though we need only to find the right program to restore flagging institutions to a place of vitality.  One of the purposes of [D]mergent is to provide a forum in which Disciples can re-discover what it means to focus on ministry dedicated not to self-preservation, but to dissolving the lines and barriers that prevent us from sinking “into union with the Body of Christ.”  For people formed by the crucifixion, death is a hopeful thing.

by Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and currently a Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell once wrestled a rodeo clown while the bull stood by in stunned amazement.
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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

11 thoughts on “[D]mergent and Stone/Campbell Heritage

  1. One of the main reasons I became a member of a DOC church is because of our focus on service and unity. Thank you for your perspective!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention [D]mergent and Stone/Campbell Heritage « [D]mergent -- Topsy.com

  3. Thank you Derek. This is a great article that I believe is pointed in the right direction. Some friends and myself have been working on updating the Last Will and Testament for our time. I hope that the DOC can begin to move more toward being the Body of Christ rather than an insitution.

  4. Well spoken, Derek. As I write this it is Pentecost, so I say, let the Spirit continue to engulf (d)mergent’s delibertations. Thanks!

  5. Derek– Did you, or someone named Ryan, write the piece on D/mergent and Campbell/Stone Heritage? If you did, may I copy this piece to my church’s web-site? Giving due to the author and website source, of course.

    I’m very sure that mainline Protestant denominations are dying. If we do not recapture the liberal heritage of the DoC in some new ways of being and living, then Christianity will be left to the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the fundamentalists. But I also worry that emergent churches require high commitment from participants, and unlike the more traditional forms of church are not particularly hospitable to the ebbs and flows of life’s spiritual rhythms. One is either “in” or “out”. There is no sitting in the back, no diving into the center for a spell, then coming up to swim in the middle or, in times of other pressures, to sit on the edges until life or whatever pushes one back into the mix. I’ve been the pastor of an “emergent church”–a house church, way back in the late 1960s/early 1970s, so I have some knowledge whereof I speak.

    • Nancy – I wrote the piece; Ryan schedules the posts. You may use the article however you’d like.

      As to emergent churches, I claim no sort of expertise in their practical advantages/disadvantages. I do believe that the conversations I’ve had (and overheard) suggest that the people attracted to the emergent dialogues are much readier for the church to live out its claims about justice, hospitality, community, etc., which requires a level of commitment they haven’t found in traditional church settings. I agree with you that the expectations that come with increased commitment may also come with some trade-offs in terms of the kind of patience that acknowledges that the work the church does is God’s work (and not our own). I think the upshot of the critique you level is that it may be difficult for emergent folks to embrace an important part of discipleship: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”–a sometimes necessary discipline. The critique I hear from emergents of the traditional church is that there’s been altogether too much “standing there,” and not enough “doing.” You raise an important point, though. The trick, it strikes me, is to seek some kind of creative tension between the two poles.

      My point in writing the post was to appeal to those of us who’ve been around the traditional church for so long to suggest that much of what emergents are concerned with in regard to institutions is native to Disciples’ way of conceiving of the church. That is to say, I think Disciples’ historical ecclesiology and emergent concerns about the church are well-suited to an interesting conversation with one another–one, I take it, that could be fruitful to both. Your comments are a perfect example of what I hope for in all of this. As an important voice in the ecumenical movement, you’re aware of the need for dialogue that is truly mutual.

      So, thanks, Nancy.

  6. Thanks to all who’ve commented. I’m interested in continuing a discussion about how the church–particularly mainliners who share many of the same concerns about the reign of God with emergents–can recapture the adventurous spirit Barton Stone et al. evince in the Last Will and Testament.

  7. One of the purposes of [D]mergent is to provide a forum in which Disciples can re-discover what it means to focus on ministry dedicated not to self-preservation, but to dissolving the lines and barriers that prevent us from sinking “into union with the Body of Christ.” For people formed by the crucifixion, death is a hopeful thing.

    Last week I pondered over on Facebook about why I’ve known so many good Christians but so many messed up churches. A good answer was offered from a surprising source, an atheist (or so I understand him to be) friend. He shared a link to an article explaining what Reinhold Niebuhr had to say about the subject. Here it is: http://huff.to/67K3G5 I think this goes along with the gist of your criticism of structures for their own sake.

    • Adam,

      Thanks for your comment. Nice article this on Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Even though I’m not a Niebuhrian myself, I think his description of structures is apt in this case. I’m more influenced by Aladair MacIntyre’s take on the self-legitimating nature of bureaucracies in After Virtue: http://undpress.nd.edu/book/P01162.

      However one gets there, though, it’s clear that when the church began thinking of itself as an institution rather than as a body, it sowed the seeds of its own _______ (fill in the blank).

  8. Pingback: Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church | drdlpenwell | Provoketive Magazine

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