Understanding Our Challenges: A "Generational" Perspective, by Pat Conover
February 8, 2009, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Last Sunday Deborah preached a sermon concerning authority in Seekers. During the comments time David spoke about a wish for more grounding of authority in our claim of Seekers to be in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour. Deborah’s sermon was preached without reference to the Church of the Saviour. This sermon will consider issues in the transfer of our traditions.
A few of you may recall a series of sermons I preached years ago in which I held up the strengths of several different Christian traditions and considered how those strengths were found within Seekers. For example, I held up the tradition of biblical scholarship that is a major part of the heritage of Protestantism. In another sermon I discussed Pentecostalism and held up the importance of the Holy Spirit as energy and guidance for living out a Christian life, for healing, for transformation. In each tradition I pointed to things to cherish and things to let go. And, for each tradition I pointed to the need for ongoing transformation of the good gifts that have been received. For example, in biblical scholarship we need to move from doctrinal reading of the scripture to contemporary historical, literary, and textual criticism. With regard to the Holy Spirit I held up the importance of the general gifts of the Spirit which we in Seekers claim as core reference for our attention to claiming, engaging, growing into, and becoming responsible ministers grounded in our callings.
This is the same kind of sermon but my subject is what Seekers should claim and let go from the Church of the Saviour. But this sermon is trickier and likely to be more controversial. My previous sermons considered older Christian traditions that most of us feel less invested in. We are much closer to the Church of the Saviour traditions and our relationship to those traditions matter more to us. However, our relationships to the Church of the Saviour traditions are changing whether we like it or not, whether we want to hold on to those traditions or not.
An early research tradition in the creation of sociology as a science in the United States came toward the end of the 19th Century at the University of Chicago. The tradition studied generational transitions in immigrant populations to the United States, a subject for numerous doctoral studies in the immigrant rich population of Chicago. For this sermon, let’s think of ourselves as immigrants into new territory and consider our own generational transitions.
We need not, however, look merely to the University of Chicago for our inspiration. Our lectionary scriptures hold up the same kinds of concerns as we consider the generations of new Christians as they claimed a new identity and practices, grounded in, but not bound by, their Jewish inheritance.
It is no secret that I am a fan of the Gospel of Mark as you can see in my recent paper that some of you have read about who Jesus was and why that matters. In Mark 1:29-39 we get the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law. This healing draws attention to Jesus. He withdraws. Then he draws two sets of brothers to his side, Simon and Andrew, James and John, and begins his preaching ministry in the towns of Galilee. In this one short section of Mark we get a glimpse of Jesus as a leader, a healer, and an itinerant rabbi. This is the first generation of Christianity and they had the challenge of articulating and embodying a new vision.
As a personal generational reference, one set of my ancestors from Holland got off the train in rural Minnesota to start farming shortly before the winter snows come. They had been told by the Rail Road recruiters in Holland that a house would be waiting for them. There wasn’t.
Gordon Cosby gathered a few family members and a few friends after the Second World War to become the first generation of the Church of the Saviour.
The first Christian generation did not last long: just a few short years and Jesus is dead on the cross. Hopes are dashed. Dreams are crushed. Jesus is not only dead he is publicly disgraced. Those who were hoping for a revival of the Davidic Kingdom to replace the puppet Herod kings had to give up that hope. Those who hoped Jesus was bringing apocalyptic end times when God would step in to change the world in dramatic ways and make things right had to give up that hope, though that theme was reclaimed by some in later generations.
What was left was a few disciples with precious memories and each other. They were now both the first and the second generation in sociological terms. They had been with Jesus but now they were on their own. Could they embody what they had learned from Jesus? Could they heal? Could they preach? Could they gather the followers together? As it turned out they could and they did. They discovered the charismatic power in themselves that they thought had died with Jesus. The challenge of this second generation was to claim, embody, and share what they had learned and come to trust..
Gordon Cosby did not have a short ministry. It has lasted several chronological generations. But those who were inspired and taught by Gordon have still taken on the second generation tasks of embodying and living out the precious gifts they received from Gordon. I could make a small claim to being in the second generation since I first heard Gordon preach in the late 1950s and followed the development of the Church of the Savior closely from afar, particularly in the 1970s. I made several retreats at Dayspring and contributed annually to the Potters House long before moving to Seekers in 1986. Fortunately, Seekers is blessed with almost a dozen members who have stronger claims, stronger emotional investments in the inspiration and teaching they received as first and second generations of the Church of the Saviour.
My ancestors in Minnesota almost perished in their first Minnesota winter. They dug trenches in the ground and slept in them through that first winter. Neighbors helped them live by sharing from their supply of corn. They soon gave up farming and opened a hardware store, the same business they had had in Holland.
Our Second Generation Seekers Church was gathered by Sonya Dyer and Fred Taylor and we are in fellowship with several other second generation churches in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour. Seekers has kept important gifts from Gordon Cosby, particularly our grounding in mission groups. Still, over the decades, we have developed and claimed our distinctive understanding of mission groups as indicated by the fact that our Mission Group Handbook is now in its eighth edition. We have also made some other big changes, such as our commitment to shared leadership and our support for individual as well as collective ministries.
In the lectionary reading from First Corinthians 9: 16-23 Paul discusses his preaching and makes three points. He has not claimed any income from his preaching and that has made him free to proclaim the gospel as he understands it. Second, he claimed his calling as a preacher: “…it would be agony for me not to preach.” Finally, Paul tells us about his strategy as a preacher and leader. He chose to use the freedom he derived from the good news of Jesus as his Saviour to relate to different groups of listeners on their own terms. When he was relating to Jews he behaved like a Jew. He started with people where they were.
Paul is a third generation Christian. He had not known Jesus directly. In fact he had persecuted the followers of Jesus before his dramatic conversion. Not surprisingly, he did not get along very well with the second generation Christians who had gathered around Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem. Paul also did not have a long ministry but, as it turned out, the Christian Church as we know it today came mostly out of his missionary work with Gentiles rather than the second generation leaders in Jerusalem.
Paul provided an answer to the key question for building Christianity. So what? Why does the story about Jesus matter. Second generation leaders, Peter for example, could testify to what he had experienced from being with Jesus. But Mark did not think highly of Peter or the other disciples and his gospel does not end with Peter as the leader of the church, as the Roman Catholics would have it, but as a disgraced traitor who refused to stand up for his faith. Paul was less oppositional than Mark and tried to build a bridge to the leaders in Jerusalem, which included a brother of Jesus, by taking a collection of money from his Gentile churches to the Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem. For myself, I am not enthusiastic about the atonement theology of Paul’s answer to the so what question and instead try to look back to leading and teachings of Jesus. But Paul did the best he could and I am thankful for so much he has given us, particularly First Corinthians Chapters 12 and 13.
I know only the one story I have just told you about my first Minnesota ancestors. I think I am part of the 5th chronological generation in their lineage but I am not even sure about that. But that story is precious to me. I admire their toughness and their practicality and I remember that if some instant community had not formed around them I would not be here today.
I identify much more with the third generation of Seekers than with the second. I haven’t always gotten along well with the second generation. I have brought distinctive grounding of my own into the congregation. I am openly critical of some of the aspects of Gordon’s leadership and that is politically incorrect for those who love Gordon a lot more than I do. I have an objective appreciation of some great parts of Gordon’s witness and leadership but I am not subjectively one of his disciples. To Gordon’s credit, from my point of view, he has changed over the years and some of my sharpest criticisms have been muted by those changes.
Marjory recently gave a wonderful sermon honoring Gordon’s legacy. I think of it as a beautiful example of a second generation sermon. She made point after point about what is valuable from the legacy of Gordon Cosby and the original Church of the Saviour. It is a sermon I could not have preached. She also deftly made the transition into pointing out some important ways Seekers has built upon, but also changed, part of that legacy. David has spoken movingly and repeatedly about his admiration for the dedication and commitment level of the first generation church, and especially about the dedication and commitment of second generation followers who were inspired by Gordon.
I am not inside that Second Generation circle and instead focus more crudely on the so what question. But the generational cycle has overcome us all again. Marjory and I, and other pre-2004 members of Seekers, have the challenge of trying to pass on what we think is important to those who have come to meet us in our new home here in Carroll Street. We remember the decade of work and caring that it took to move to our beautiful rebuilt building and the work of spiritual transition that has kept alive so much of what we cared about. Marjory and I, David and Deborah, are on the same side of the table for the new round of so what questions. We have the challenge of both remembering and letting go of treasured stories that are old history to many of you, of making space for those of you who may want to hear and honor some of those old stories but are quite appropriately more interested in the new story, or at least the new chapter, we are now creating together.
Old dissatisfactions remain for me and I am coming to believe that I may never prevail in some old battles. For example, I still firmly believe that tithing is not a fair and just spiritual standard for becoming a Steward. It is not the best biblical grounding for financial stewardship from my point of view and, as a standard based on income with no attention to wealth, I find it intrinsically unjust. On the other hand I find deep satisfaction that we engaged in a stewardship of wealth to buy and rebuild this building. Some gave larger gifts and made larger loans. I particularly treasure the story of a member who faced hard and straightforwardly into the question of whether she could feel like part of the transforming congregation because she could give so little financially. Her sincerity and openness opened a path for many to make a happier transition with us. Newer people who will perhaps honor something of what we have to share but will also, whether they or we like it or not, have to make their own discernment and choices about what is worth carrying on, what they will embody, come to understand, and then in turn pass on. My point here is simply that you can make a whole hearted entry into this community before everything is right, before everything is comfortable, before everything about Seekers is understood.
Passing on traditions between generations is tricky business. It may help to realize that there is an underlying polarity of dynamics and form that, like other fundamental polarities, can never be resolved but only embraced. Remembering the metaphor of the church as Christ’s body, following First Corinthians 12, you cannot understand a body with mere physiology. The body is always in interaction with the environment, always hosting billions of cells of thousands of kinds of bacteria, always dying and replacing cells at billions per minute. Physiology only helps you understand body form and function. A person may be in perfect healthy form but, if you take away oxygen, the person will be dead in minutes. Energy in our bodies with bad form is stress, cancer, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease.
The Eighth Edition of Seekers Handbook on Mission Groups is a nice piece of work. If you haven’t ever read it I recommend it highly. On the other hand, mission groups seldom pull out the written text to see if we are doing things right. It rests on the shelf until we have a controversy over what “doing things right” means. What matters is that a lot of Seekers members have mission group standards written on their hearts. That doesn’t end the challenge of accountability but it makes accountability conversations an interactive process rather than an authoritarian encounter. It may help some of you to read the Handbook but what really matters is joining a mission group and bringing your caring, commitment, and creativity into mutually supportive interaction with the other mission group members.
The Handbook spells out in great detail how Seekers has inherited and adapted the Church of the Saviour tradition of organizing around mission groups to our kind of community based organizational structure without clergy. It is a formal answer to part of David’s concern about that part of our inheritance from the Church of the Saviour. The desired commitments are specified in detail. Our nuances of form matter and are based on a lot of experience and a lot of reflection and conversation. But it is only form until it brought to life in our current mission groups.
I could repeat this point by discussing another center point of our congregational life: how we identify, claim, embrace, explore, develop, express, and are held accountable for our calling as Christians, how we grow into ministry. Our writing about call is not as tightly organized as our writing about mission groups, but the point is the same: knowing how to work with calling only matters if you have a lot of people actually working with their callings.
In contrast, we have very little writing and preaching about artistic activity in Seekers. We mostly just do it. The forms for artistic expression in Seekers are more subtle, more invisible, more dispersed. But there is discipline and a grounded sense of form in the liturgical work of Celebration Circle and our alter displays. Interplay is all about expression and embodiment and yet there are numerous specific forms to be learned. I have given three different paraphrases of the Lord’s prayer to Celebration Circle and they decide when, if at all, to use them. Koinonia has guidelines for decorating the church for Christmas. Peter has guidelines for hanging an art display. I have some kind of inner sense about which pieces of art to show in our front window each week. (By the way that is a task I would be pleased to pass off to someone else who feels a calling to do that bit of work.)
These three examples are meant to illustrate the dynamic and formal concerns in passing on tradition. In actually living out the ongoing transitions between generations of Seekers we encounter another fundamental polarity that can only be embraced and not controlled. We are always being Seekers Church. At any moment we just are who we are. I made a major effort to write about who we are at one moment in the Case Study of Seekers that I wrote last year. But, equally, we are always becoming something new. We are the emerging and transforming Seekers. Some of our changes are adjustments and negotiations. Other change are about death and rebirth. Some changes are more comfortable than others. Marjory has preserved a lot of that story in her writing about the history of Seekers.
Who gets to say when a change, or a proposed change, is good? This question returns us to the question of authority that was addressed by Deborah last week and by several other Seekers over the years. My case study describes the formal structures of authority in mission groups and Stewards and how they interact. Less formally, we share a key slogan, “Authority is at the point of call.” The slogan is based in the theological priority we give to depending on the Holy Spirit. But Seekers ecclesiology is not simplistic. We have processes for discerning the leadings of the Holy Spirit which lift up Jesus and the biblical story as well as church history, including Seekers own experience with discerning calls. Still, each of us votes every day about authority in Seekers by following or withdrawing or challenging various practices. When that gets noticeable we have conversations. When the conversations are not sufficient we change the locus of the conversations to Stewards who ultimately make the hard calls. But the formal authority of Stewards only matters when it finds acceptance in the broader congregation. At that point the question of authority morphs into the questions of leadership.
The so what question can be jarring. Over the years we have had to deal with some jarring questions. Some we have answered to my satisfaction and some we have not. My list of satisfactions and dissatisfactions is different from the list carried by other Seekers. Such differences can be holy unrest if we treat each other with respect, if we listen, if we care for each other as much as we care about presenting our part of an argument. That is when diversity becomes constructive, even transformative.
Generational dynamics within Seekers will not disappear. I am not going to become a second generation member of Church of the Saviour. I will continue to bring concerns from a different perspective than others because I have a different experience, a different theological grounding, and different hopes and visions. I see Seekers as becoming more and more a “post-Protestant” church in the sense of not needing to fight over differences as doctrinal differences, of not requiring theological or ecclesiological purity. Instead, we are in a mutual ongoing process of meeting each other with respect for our different groundings. Seekers will continue to thrive when this process trumps our difference. I mean Seekers will thrive when we care more about building together than about our dissatisfactions.
Even though I think good process, good spirit, good dynamics, is crucial; I think good form is just as important. I continue to believe that eventually our living experiment with a community based way of being a Christian Church will matter a lot to broader Christianity, that our distinctive way of being a church without clergy will matter a lot, that our thoughtfulness about mission groups and Christian calling will matter a lot.
For the rest of this sermon I want to share my thoughts with you about our larger frames of reference for who we are and what we are doing. For starters, I see Seekers as Post-Catholic, Post-Protestant, Post-Evangelical, and probably post several other things as well. We appreciate what those who have come before us have done with their chapters in the life of Christianity but we are writing a later chapter. We are catholic in the sense of seeing ourselves as part of Christianity with several kinds of ties to other Christians who do not see the world the way we do. We see ourselves as true inheritors of orthodox Christianity but are post-orthodox in restating such faith, freed from the limits of Platonic and Aristotelian framing of orthodoxy by the early established church and then Roman Catholicism, freed from mechanistic understandings of the world in the tradition of Newton that influenced Protestant theological themes such as predestination, and free for engagement with contemporary science and philosophy without fear, free to dialogue with other religions in a more open-hearted and less defensive way, and free to rethink and recast our own story in dialogue with all that is true, whatever the source of that truth.
We are serious about our grounding in the biblical story, in our ongoing engagement with what it means to follow Jesus, but free from defending Protestant or Roman Catholic statements of orthodoxy that are as limited by authoritarianism. We celebrate what is new and good in biblical research, in liturgical exploration, in artistic expression, in scientific discovery, and in social, cultural, and political constructions. This makes our time in Seekers an exciting time and we are fortunate to have so many resources within this congregation. We have solid older boats and the skill to build new boats, boats adequate for the lakes, even the whitewater rapids of our local waters, and boats to cross oceans to South Africa, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Russia, Jerusalem, Japan, China, and many other places. We are not only boat-builders and boat crews, we are Christian settlers ready to live together on the new frontiers of 2009.
We are Post-Evangelical in claiming the importance of the Holy Spirit, in engaging the dynamics of emotion and passion, but focused as much or more on ongoing transformation as upon the initial steps of engaging the Christian life that we call salvation. We are also Post-Evangelical in the sense of caring about the transformation of our society and world rather than mostly about individual salvation defined as going to heaven after we die. I use the word transformation here with intentionality to distinguish Seekers from the threads of Christian history that emphasize withdrawal from this sinful world or, at best, offering only refuge and light house ministries.
We are not as alone as it sometimes feels. We share some fellowship with other congregations growing out of the grounding in the Church of the Saviour. The larger frame which includes many of the features that I have just described is most commonly called Progressive Christianity. There are thousands of congregations and smaller Christian groups that share Seekers attitudes about scholarship, that encourage artistic expression and vitality in worship, that focus more on transformation than conversion, and that value a broad range of ministries in the world. They are found within the Roman Catholic tradition, in mainline Protestant and Anglican denominations, in new Evangelicals such as McClaren, and in lots of independent congregations. Indeed we share our building with one such congregation: Covenant Community. Seekers was chosen for significant mention in the books Excellent Protestant Congregations and A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, because we fit the progressive frame. I hope you are more comforted than jealous that we are not as unique as we sometimes like to think. And I hope you will continue to find it worthwhile, even exciting, to be in on the ground floor, indeed to have helped to call forth this new thing that the Holy Spirit is about all around us.
Generations one, two, three. We are all part of Generation One in this new thing that God is doing with us and among us today. Let’s help each other play the parts we have been given with thankfulness, grace, seriousness, and wild abandon.