“The sermon today is the Rector’s annual report,” joked the Reverend Bruce Freeman at Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) in Cincinnati, “where I wrap my message in a sermon so that you think you are getting a real sermon!” It is March 2005, and this is Bruce’s first annual meeting at Redeemer, his first rector’s report in his new congregation. For more than twenty years, the people at Redeemer have intentionally engaged Christian practices as the heart of their communal faith. At a time when many mainline congregations still tried to do church as their grandparents had, Redeemer reconfigured itself as a pilgrimage community, a place of personal transformation based in the life of study, prayer, and discerning the work of the Holy Spirit. It has not always been easy. Along the way, they have had some dark times—like the three years spent searching for their new minister, the search that resulted in Bruce moving from a church near San Francisco to join Redeemer on its journey.
In his first months, Bruce listened carefully to the language of this pilgrim community, trying to understand its distinctive practices and the way the church organizes its communal life. They have many gifts, including a special practice of “the ministry of encouragement” and unique practices of discernment. On the first day of his new ministry, Bruce was given an extraordinary gift—a member who had just passed away left Redeemer more than $12 million to be used at the congregation’s discretion. In today’s sermon, Bruce reflects upon Redeemer’s many gifts. To Bruce, gifts should not occasion self-congratulations. Rather, gifts are an invitation to change. He talks about the call of Jesus’s disciples and the relationship between abundance and risk.
The New Testament reading is that of the great catch of fish, whose very abundance threatens to sink the apostles’ boats. “This is a metaphor for the church in general and Church of the Redeemer in particular,” Bruce says. “We have caught onto an abundance of Spirit, an abundance of gifts. But this call involves risk; it is both a challenge and an opportunity.” Bruce highlights Redeemer’s many successes as a parish—its faithfulness, intelligence, humor, and commitment. Yet he gently reminds them that these gifts are a renewed call to “open itself and share itself with new and wider communities.”
Throughout his sermon, Bruce emphasizes Redeemer’s amazing capacity for change—Jim Hanisian, the former rector, called them progressive conservatives—based in their openness to the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit’s call is not just something that happened in the past. “God is equally present now,” Bruce says, “and we need to pay attention to the Holy Spirit here and now. Redeemer is called to new people, new communities, and new ways of being.”
No one gasps. No one looks worried. No one panics as Bruce calls for change. They listen carefully, open and expectant. If they are anxious, they have learned that such feelings are a natural part of paying attention to God and taking risks. After twenty years of being a different sort of church, change is a way of life for them. The young associate minister, Alice Connor says, “They have a certain trust that things will happen. They are willing to be patient and let them happen.” A long time member agrees: “Redeemer has always been in a state of change and transition. We trust that the Holy Spirit is working through all things. I really feel that.” Tim, another long time member comments, “I think that we try to be who we are, to be better at who we are and who God wants us to be.”
All across the congregation, people do not speak of being. Rather, they speak of becoming, of calling, of listening, of responsive acting. Nothing at Redeemer is a finished product. Instead, it is, as one member said, “open on the end.” Alice Connor says that Redeemer is not a “what’s the point?” kind of church where people do things because “we’ve always done it.” Instead, Alice attributes Redeemer’s lively tradition to the fact that “the Holy Spirit is guiding us.” Long time member Lynne Thornton opines that “tradition needs to be fluid.”
Church changes? How can that be? After all, the New Testament teaches that, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” Many Christians interpret this to mean that Christianity and the Church never change. Indeed, church is often viewed as a place to escape change, to cling to the old ways. From this perspective, change is somehow secular, an accommodation to worldliness that whittles away at true faith. Yet, at Redeemer change is a spiritual practice, one deeply based in an alternative stream of New Testament theology—the theology of the Holy Spirit.
Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures depict the Holy Spirit as the wind or breath of God that blows as it will, ever changing and ever recreating. In Christianity, the Holy Spirit is God’s mysterious presence, often pictured in the New Testament as a risk taker and rule breaker, the person of the Trinity who does not play by the book. Throughout my pilgrimage, people talked of the Holy Spirit and change, grounding their experiences of congregational life on the life-giving wind of God. Indeed, they rarely spoke of God as Father; they often talked about Jesus, but they most frequently used the language of Spirit to explain their churches. Presbyterian minister Graham Standish told me that, in recent years, his congregation had experienced, “a natural openness to God, more organic than programmatic, back to the way the original church was.”
I have heard the writer Phyllis Tickle explain that the early centuries of Christianity were the time of the Father, the Reformation was the time of the Son, and these days might well be the time of the Spirit. Certainly, her trinitarian history meshes with what I saw on the road. Everywhere, and rather unexpectedly, people in emerging mainline churches were allowing themselves to be remade by the breath of God. They easily spoke of the Spirit, referring to that often mysterious person of the Trinity, and expectantly anticipated God’s movement in their midst. They seek to be, as one person described it, “a telling presence” of God in the world.
Following the Spirit means change. And it means that God has distinctive calls for each congregation, each unique, each responsive to the breath of new life. My pilgrimage taught me that the Spirit is not only about individual transformed churches, but that, when viewed corporately, congregations form a mosaic of regenerative change. Together, they point toward an emerging form of Christian gathering, the pilgrim church. There is no one-size-fits-all kind of pilgrim congregation. One of their few shared qualities is their ability to change, their recognition that pilgrim communities are communities engaged in near-continual spiritual transformation. In their midst, I encountered a variety of new ways of becoming church—each a living recreation of Christian tradition. Together, they allowed me to see hope.
Reprinted from Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith. Published by HarperSanFrancisco. Copyright © 2006 by Diana Butler Bass. All rights reserved.
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
In this provocative book, historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are changing, finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices and laying the groundwork for a new type of congregation. Invigorated by stories from Bass’s own experience, The Practicing Congregation provides a hopeful and exciting vision of “the once and future church” that Alban founder Loren Mead first named over 10 years ago.
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims is the highly anticipated follow-up to The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass. The contributors are innovators, representing some of the most dynamic leadership voices among today’s clergy. Their experiences challenge conventional thinking and inspire creative experimentation. Any congregational leader searching for positive models will appreciate these insightful essays.