In my last post, I laid out Elton Trueblood’s vision for a reformation within the Church. He cast a vision of a network of redemptive societies of Christians, committed to God, to one another, and to blessing the world. But how does a congregation get from where it is to there? He has some great practical advice:
A Gradual Approach to Renewal
The question of the relationship of a redemptive society and an existant local chuch is important and urgent because many of those who are committed to this method of Christian recovery are already ministers or influential lay members in already organized and well-established churches. The best wisdom here seems to be that of trying to transform the actual church of which we are members into the kind of fellowships of which so many of us have dreamed. This may be difficult, and serious resistance may be encountered, but on the whole it is better than division within the church or separation from it. Separation is wrong, partly because it is so easy. To form a new denomination is to commit a sin.
Sometimes we speak of “the church within the church,” and there is a sense in which this is a valid expression, but the obvious danger is the creation of the impression that there is a little esoteric group which feels superlatively holy and sets itself up to be better than others. It is clear that any group which actually looks upon itself as having arrived spiritually is thereby giving the most convincing evidence that it has not arrived. Probably the best way to avoid this impression is to employ institutions already familiar to people and then to proceed with the alteration of their functions.
Renewing the Weekly Prayer Meeting
It is well known that the prayer meeting, long a stable feature of standard Protestantism, is practically defunct. This could be taken over, in thousands of churches, without causing offense but, on the contrary, actually inspiring gratitude. The prayer meeting could be transformed into a fellowship living voluntarily by the kind of discipline which gives freedom.
A group gathering in the evening in this way, presumably in the middle of the week, should occupy, whenever possible, a simple room, largely unadorned and so arranged as to make the company a face-to-face group. Rows of benches in auditorium style are almost prohibitive of the spirit and atmosphere desired. There ought not to be any pulpit or any chair so placed as to suggest that its occupant is in a position of leadership. For many, the presence of an open fire is a distinct help and, in this case, the chairs may well be placed so as to form three sides of a square, the fireplace forming the fourth side. The fireplace helps to recover something of the home atmosphere of the first Christian gatherings, which were so small and so powerful. Ideally the room should be on church premises, in order to symbolize the determination to work within the existing framework and not separate from it as a little clique who have become emancipated and advanced.
It is advised that the group thus gathered in silence, each taking his place quietly and unostentatiously, should continue for about an hour in silent waiting together, except when the silence is broken by a message or messages. Each attender must come, not determined to speak, and not determined to keep silence, but determined to be sensitive to divine leading and obedient to any call. Above all, the members must not speak in order to fill the time or to keep the meeting from being dull. That would be absolutely ruinous. If there is an open fire it is profitable to keep the lights low or in any case not garish.
At the end of the hour some one member, taking the responsibility voluntarily and in turn, should break the quietness and begin to preside in what is essentially a meeting for strategy. It is assumed that every attender is actually or potentially a worker, an evangelist. Workers need to confer with one another and this is a prime opportunity to do so. Thus worship is seen not as an end, but rather as a beginning. It eventuates in work and service. A visitor, once attending a silent meeting, and being perplexed by the fact that nothing seemed to happen, was consequently afraid that he had made a mistake about the hour. He whispered to his neighbor, “When does the service begin ?” The memorable answer was, “The service begins when the meeting ends.” This is the relationship exactly. Worship that does not result in service is barren; service that does not arise out of worship is superficial and rootless.
Accordingly, the conference on action follows naturally the hour of worship. Since all are workers, they must plan their joint tasks, which often include deputations to places of opportunity or need. Each person should be asked to report on his missionary activities during the week, seeking help from the others when unusual difficulties have been met. Major decisions concerning professions and other important matters should be brought before the group, and group guidance sought. The development of the common discipline [Trueblood’s term for the group’s rule of life – see the last post for specifics] should be discussed. The prospects for new members should be seriously considered. After a half-hour or more of such strategic discussion the evening should end. Absolute regularity of attendance must be expected and all must resist, consciously, the temptation to be part of the “audience.”
Though this transformation of the prayer meeting is a live possibility in countless congregations, there may be some in which a transformation of the ancient institution would be resented. In such cases, it should ordinarily be possible to use another evening, and thus make it clear that no competition is intended. By such means the danger of the esoteric reputation may be largely avoided, especially if it is always made clear that the fellowship is not a clique but is open to all. Whosoever will may come! The only selection is self-selection, determined wholly by the rigors of the demands and the willingness to accept these rigors.
When such a group begins to be too large for the reality of this face-to-face experience, the proper procedure is fission. This is the method of organic growth in which cells divide and redivide until there is a large and healthy body. The ordinary membership of the church would, in such cases, be the major though not the sole field from which new participants in the fellowship would be drawn.
Renewing the Existing Membership
Many have wondered what ought to be done about the present church membership, which is often so inflated and consequently meaningless. The best wisdom seems to lie in doing nothing about the members already accepted, insofar as a weeding out is concerned, but in doing much about the acceptance of future members. It is probably better not to take any names from present rolls, because there may be instances in which even the tenuous membership we now generally accept may be the means of infection by the gospel. But we should start at once to demand veracity of membership in the future, not begging people to let their names be put on church rolls but challenging and warning them of the requirements as well as the opportunities involved. We can do this by full acceptance of the idea that membership, whenever real, is functional. We must teach one and all that to join a church is like joining an army; it means the undertaking of a task and the acceptance of a discipline. Meanwhile the present membership can provide a rich field for missionary work. The very fact that individuals once became members may indicate some openness to a step which involves real meaning, providing that step is presented to them. The major strategy is to turn the present church members, one by one, into participants in a truly redemptive society.
More on Renewing the Midweek Church Night
We must do something to break up the convention that religion is something in which one man stands up and talks to a number of others whose job it is to listen patiently and put something in the offering. The most practical way in which this beneficent alteration can occur is by shifting the center of spiritual gravity to the middle of the week. In many local situations it is probably wise not to disturb the conventional Sunday service, which many expect and which some sincerely appreciate, but there is no good reason why we should fail to cultivate a more vigorous plant elsewhere. Our clue here is the midweek church night, already a potent instrument in some communities and full of possibilities in others. The midweek church night can be the gathering of the truly concerned and without the artificialities which have come, by long association, to be associated with Sunday. Nobody attends the midweek church night to show off new clothing or to perform a superstitious and therefore perfunctory act.
The midweek gathering of the faithful, with its common Christian meal, its serious instruction and its simultaneous fellowship meetings devoted to silence and strategy as outlined above, can be the point at which the church we have known can begin to be the church as it ought to be. It is often right that the faithful should not attend on Sunday, in their local church, but it is seldom right that they should fail to attend the power meeting in the middle of the week. A faithful member should often be absent on Sunday because he ought to be carrying on his missionary labors in other places. His absence from his home church on Sunday will not mean that he is escaping his Christian duty but rather that he is loyally performing it. But seldom can there be a valid excuse for absence at the middle of the week. He cannot continue in the fellowship of veracity unless he breaks bread with his fellows and shares with them both in silence and in words. He cannot be a real member unless he brings his decisions to the test of group approbation and gives his thoughtful and devout attention to the problems of his fellow members. Because it is so much closer to the realities of living and because it gets away from so much that is merely artificial, the fellowship of Wednesday or Thursday evening may be vastly superior to that of Sunday morning. But those who now see this and try to do something about it are woefully in the minority.
The Usefulness of Pledge Cards
A practical question, often asked, refers to the use of pledge cards and signatures. Are these valuable or not? Some concerned people doubt the wisdom of employing such devices on the ground that they tend to formalize what ought to be spontaneous and free. On balance, however, there is good reason to advise the use of signatures, largely because all men and women are morally frail and need whatever will strengthen them. We need “incitements to do well,” because we are men and not angels. For a great many people the signing of a modest pledge, especially when they are urged not to sign unless they mean it, is a remarkably effective aid to persistence. This is because they honor their own signatures.
What we seek is some way of escaping the vagueness of so much current religion, especially in membership. People who join have a right to know what definite requirements are involved and they need to know whether they are in or out. The signature does not mean that the signer has arrived but it does mean that he is definite in intention. How compatible this is with the deeper freedom of the spirit is shown by the fact that those who joined the Quaker movement in the seventeenth century often stood together and signed a book with great solemnity.
If we want a movement that is not a mere remnant but something which really penetrates the rank and file of modern life, sweeping our culture as have other redemptive movements in the past, we need to have something of marked simplicity to put into the hands of seekers. It should be brief enough to appear on a single card and small enough to go into an ordinary letter. It should be so definite and clear that almost any literate person can get the idea. At the conclusion there could be a place for a signature, preceded by some such sentence as the following: It is my intention, with God’s help, to live by the foregoing principles and to practice daily the above discipline. All who think of themselves as belonging to the fellowship are advised to prepare such cards and to carry some with them at all times, ready to present to seekers.
The Usefulness of Queries
Another valuable device, suited to our finite and forgetful character, is the use of queries. The value of the query is that it stirs up some attempt at an answer. A sentence in the indicative often produces no response, because no response seems to be required, while the imperative or hortatory sentence may be equally unproductive because people are accustomed to good advice. But an interrogation demands an answer, in virtue of its essential incompleteness. One of the most moving of group experiences is that in which one member reads aloud certain searching questions and lets each attender formulate his own interior answers in the considerable silence which follows the reading of each question. This is such a simple device that it can be employed anywhere, but it is seldom appreciated or used. Any group will wish to produce its own queries as it produces, ultimately, its own discipline, thus making the fellowship creative and thereby more genuine, but the following are suggestive:
- Do you actually love one another?
- Is prayer a reality to you?
- Are you careful of the reputations of others, especially avoiding talebearing and gossip?
- Are you punctual in keeping your promises and prompt in the payment of your debts?
- Do you live in such a manner that you can use a portion of your income for the spread of the Kingdom of God?
- Do you avoid defrauding the public revenue?
- Are you sensitive to the wrongs and injustices of members of other races, frequently thinking of yourself as in their places?
- Do you refuse to enjoy personal comfort at the expense of oppression and injustice?
- Do you use your influence to help to produce a warless world ?
- Is your home a place where love reigns and where the Kingdom of God begins?
These queries, or others like them, can be put on a card and used frequently by the individual in the solitariness of private worship. They could be put on a card with ten questions on one side and ten commandments on the other. The members must be encouraged, not only to use such devices, which have been useful to other frail men and women, but also to create new devices of their own, particularly those suited to their special conditions.