Putting “Seriousness” Into Action: Reflections on the 2012 Sider Institute Study Conference

The fact that I took no pictures at last Thursday’s Sider Institute study conference should say something about how jam-packed the day was. From the opening plenary address by E. Morris Sider, the dean of Brethren in Christ history, to the closing panel of Brethren in Christ leaders reflecting on the use of history in congregational ministry, the “Why We Should Take Our History Seriously” conference provided much food for thought.

Now, our task is to translate that “seriousness” into action.

Expectedly, the conference focused broadly on the concept of “history” and how our specific Brethren in Christ history has been perceived and narrated in denominational life. Again expectedly, the conference also focused more narrowly on the theological traditions that have influenced the Brethren in Christ historically: Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyanism, and Evangelicalism.

I was especially energized by the question-and-answer/open discussion periods of the day. We Brethren in Christ have often prided ourselves on doing community well and on emphasizing the communal nature of discernment. I think the Sider Institute conference showed that emphasis at work. Discussion ranged widely — for instance, we talked about everything from “legalism” (that old bugaboo among the Brethren in Christ) to the “embarrassing” aspects of our history, from contemporary applications of our historical streams of influence to the ways in which we might need to expand our understanding of “denominational history” to help members from various walks of life see themselves in our story.

I walked away from the conference optimistic about the future of the Brethren in Christ Church with respect to its history and heritage. Yet I also found myself mulling over some important questions and “takeaways.”

After the jump: What I took away from the Sider Institute conference on “Taking Our History Seriously.”

1. We need to unpack our suitcases. At one point during the open discussion, Alan Robinson — the senior pastor at Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church, and a participant in the conference — pointed out that we were using a lot of “suitcase words” in our debate and dialogue — a reference to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. Wright has written,

[Certain words] . . . are useful in the way that suitcases are. They enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them all around together. But we should never forget that the point of doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. . . . It is time to unpack our shorthand [words], to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron.

We used a lot of “suitcase words” at the conference — and in the Brethren in Christ Church in general — but there are two that I want to highlight here: “heritage” and “Evangelicalism.” We used these words a lot at the conference, and I think that unpacking one or both of these terms goes beyond the scope of this post. However, I think we need to do this — and do it soon.

Does “heritage” refer to a kind of nostalgic appeal to the past? Does it refer to a dynamic engagement of our theology and our contemporary mission and ministry? What is the relationship between “heritage” and present-day identity and life as the Brethren in Christ Church?

Moreover, what are we talking about when we discuss “Evangelicalism”? Are we talking about the Greek evangelon — translated as “good news”? Are we talking about the Protestant Reformation, where concepts like salvation by grace through faith, the priesthood of all believers, and sola scriptura became essential aspects of Protestant orthodoxy? Are we talking about Wesleyan evangelicals, who tend to emphasize experience (practice) and reflect Arminian theology, or are we talking about Reformed evangelicals, who tend to emphasize doctrine and reflect Calvinist theology? Or are we talking about historically rooted “evangelicalisms,” like the evangelicalism associated with the mid-19th century Second Great Awakening, or the evangelicalism associated with the post-World War II popularity of people like Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Bill Bright?

Answering these questions — unpacking these suitcases — will help us have better dialogue.

2. We are in the midst of an identity crisis. Lots of conference participants spoke frankly about a perceived “identity crisis” within the Brethren in Christ Church. Most agreed that the Brethren in Christ had been swallowed up in “generic (or vanilla) Evangelicalism.” And many called for a return to our “historic theological influences” as a panacea for this Evangelical virus.

I agree that we are in the midst of a denominational identity crisis as Brethren in Christ. But, frankly, I think that crisis has been happening for a lot longer than we know.

Many conference attendees referred to a seminal essay by Luke Keefer, Jr., titled “The Three Streams in Our Heritage: Separate or Parts of a Whole?” This essay was reprinted in the most recent (August 2012) issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life, and was used by conference organizers as a way to get participants “on the same page” about certain issues and questions. When Keefer first penned this article in 1996, he was writing it for a conference on Brethren in Christ identity — a conference premised on the notion that the Brethren in Christ do not know who they are!

I would venture that we have been experiencing an identity crisis (at greater and lesser levels) since the Church Review and Study Committee moved us away from plain dress and instrument-less worship in the 1950s and 1960s. We’ve figured out ways to “define” Brethren in Christ identity (instituting a logo in the 1970s, defining our “core values” in the 1990s/2000s, etc.) but these have not had the universal utility. We Brethren in Christ believe a lot of things, and do a lot of things — things that sometimes conflict and paint a frenzied picture of who we are. I think this contemporary crisis will force us to develop new ways of thinking about ourselves and articulating our theological identity.

Brethren in Christ church leaders C.N. Hostetter, Jr. (in front), and Arthur Climenhaga (second from right), pose for a photo with Billy Graham at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. (Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

3. We need to “scrutinize” Evangelicalism.As #1 probably indicates, a great deal of our discussion at the conference focused on Evangelicalism — the proposed “fourth stream” of influence in Brethren in Christ life and thought. In his essay read by all conference attendees, Luke Keefer encourages the Brethren in Christ to “subject Evangelicalism to the thorough scrutiny we have never given it.”

We heard lots of calls for evangelical “scrutinization” during the conference. Most of the calls derided Evangelicalism as a polluting influence in denominational life — a familiar refrain among Anabaptists. Nate Hulfish, a pastor in the Circle of Hope network of churches and one of the conference contributors, put perhaps the finest point on it: “. . . while we were trying to strain the gnat of effective contemporary Evangelism, we swallowed the camel of ineffective contemporary Evangelicalism.  And that’s a problem we need to take very seriously.”

I recognize the need for such a call. In fact, I think it’s good and healthy. I respect Nate and others like him for their prophetic ministry among us. And I join them in pointing out those places at which Evangelicalism has dampened or muted our theological distinctives, especially on issues like peace, justice/compassion, and simple living.

At the same time, I think Keefer’s call for scrutiny was not a call for simply deriding Evangelicalism. The closing clause of the above quote is telling on this point: “. . . subject Evangelicalism to the thorough scrutiny we have never given it, to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable” (emphasis mine). Keefer saw some benefit in Evangelicalism! His call for scrutiny was a nuanced call for scrutiny, one that recognized the value of Evangelicalism as well as the costs of it.

I’m not going to enumerate those values or those costs here — that’s a whole other post, frankly! Suffice it to say: if we are going to “scrutinize” Evangelicalism, we need to acknowledge both its positive and negative influences, seeking to affirm the former and confront the latter.

4. We need more forums for this kind of theological dialogue — all across the Brethren in Christ community. After the conference ended, I spent a few minutes chatting with some friends about the proceedings and our “next steps.” One asked, “How do we move forward from here. How do we take this ‘show on the road’?” I think he was referring to the fact that most Sider Institute events draw on pastors in a 30-40 mile radius of Messiah College — what some have referred to as the “heartland” of the Brethren in Christ Church.

Indeed, the tenor of the conference would have been considerably different, I assume, if our sisters and brothers from Kansas, California, and Florida had joined us for the day. For all the positive momentum we generated during our discussion and debate, we missed a huge segment of our community — and, as a result, a huge segment of our potential pool of wisdom.

How can we develop more forums for this kind of theological and historical dialogue — and how can we make those forums trans-geographic? It’s something we need to brainstorm if we’re going to move forward together as Brethren in Christ.

5. We need to take responsibility. If we Brethren in Christ in the United States truly believe we’re experiencing a crisis of identity, and if we are truly committed to resolving this impasse and moving forward in faith, we need to take responsibility.

I sense at various levels of leadership a sense that our General Conference officers are all that matters in terms of leadership and vision for the church. (I say this recognizing that I am just as guilty of this as anyone else!) With all due respect to these leaders, this is a wrong assumption — and it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of our polity.

As a church, we are a community — we are led from the grassroots. Changes to denominational polity since the 1990s have placed authority in the hands of fewer and fewer people, but that does not mean that we as a grassroots community cannot exert considerable influence.

Of course, General Conference leaders set the tone for the denomination. (We can see that in General Conference-led initiatives like Transformation 2020, for example.) Just as senior pastors set the tone in their congregations, so too do denominational leaders set the tone for the denomination. But I want to qualify this observation with at least one clarification. (There could probably be more!) Theologically, we Brethren in Christ stand in the tradition of the “priesthood of all believers.” By virtue, we acknowledge that, in God’s economy, there is no division between the lay and clerical classes. One “class” isn’t better — or more “tuned in” to God and God’s direction — than the other. Our ecclesiology emphasizes the role of the laity in discerning mission priorities and casting vision for the work and ministry of the church. (My congregation, Circle of Hope, exemplifies this concept beautifully in our annual “mapping” process.) Thus, leadership should — and does — set priorities and cast vision based on the discernment of the whole group.

In an effort to take more responsibility, I urge pastors and other involved lay leaders to do two things. First, if you have specific concerns or would like to see new moves, develop recommendations for the regional conference meetings, and bring these recommendations to the General Conference. Second, take an active role in perhaps one of the most significant grassroots projects of our church: discerning who among us will be called to lead. Right now, the Brethren in Christ Church is in the process of selecting a new General Conference leader. Get involved in this process! Educate yourself about the process, the qualifications, and the timeline. Contact your General Conference Board representative to voice your perspective on what our church needs in a new leader. And pray for the Search Committee as they fulfill their Manual of Doctrine and Government – given task of determining our next leader.

Let’s work at being a community of discussion and corporate discernment — and let’s show our leaders that we care about the future of our denomination by inaugurating change at the grassroots level.

About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah University.
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2 Responses to Putting “Seriousness” Into Action: Reflections on the 2012 Sider Institute Study Conference

  1. Pingback: Proceeings of the 2012 Sider Institute Conference Now Available Online « The Search for Piety and Obedience

  2. Pingback: April 2013 Issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life | The Search for Piety and Obedience

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