[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.