By Rev. Libby Davis Manning
Associate Director of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program
When I served in parish ministry in Fishers, Indiana from 2008-2017, teaching new member class was one of my favorite activities. My pastoral colleague and I invited the new members into our homes for dinner and conversation (people love to see their pastors’ homes and living spaces, by the way), and over a series of three gatherings, we shared an overview of Lutheran theology, Christian discipleship practices, and an orientation to our building, grounds, and staff. It was lovely, and those conversations are some of my favorite memories of my years in parish ministry.
I’ve stepped out of parish ministry for a season to serve as Associate Director of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program and as a Consultant to the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment, but when I return to the parish one day, I think I’m going to structure new member class differently. I’m going to start new member class with a short history lesson of the community in which the church is situated, followed by an overview of the demographic information of the community (find this information for your own community at www.arda.org), and then commence a driving tour of the places that serve the marginalized in the community, the places of brokenness and division and hurt within the community.
Why the change? Because only after the real nitty-gritty information has been covered and seen and named would I dive into the theology and discipleship practices with which I used to begin class. Only in the context of what God has done and is doing in this community to bring healing of divisions and restoration to the broken places does the need for and urgency toward good theology and deeply discipled Christ-followers make sense. Since Christ is the center of the church, and since Christ operates on the margins, the church needs to go to the margins.
It’s curious to me that Jesus doesn’t speak much of the church. Jesus speaks mostly of the Kingdom of God, of God’s long-term project of rescuing the world and bringing salvation and wholeness to all creation. What then, does this mean for the church, or for new member classes? It does not mean church-growth needs to be our primary focus, or that the church building needs to be our primary focus. As Rachel Held Evans said, “anything obsessed with its own growth is cancerous.” The question is not about our own growth. The question is, are we in touch with the marginalized of our community? Do we weep over the brokenness that God weeps over in our community? Do we even see the brokenness and injustice from within the four walls of our building?
Good theology acknowledges the deep complexity and brokenness of life. I want to start new member orientation by naming the brokenness the new members see in our very own community all around us and then talk about the church’s possible response to it. I want to wrestle with the deep real complexity about how to live lives of discipleship in our community in the face of those complexities, and not ignore those nitty-gritty realities. I want to then talk about the role our lives have in this particular community, as vessels through which God lives and moves to provide healing and wholeness and salvation to this particular community, if we are open to being used by God. In other words, I want to talk about the role of the church, the very body of Christ in the world until Christ comes again, and her urgent, yet simultaneously immensely patient, mission in tending to the well-being of the local community.