By Toya Richards Hill
Presentations and conversations centered on the current state of the Christian church took center stage during the recent Festival of Theology and Alum Reunion at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, March 15-18.
Discussions on “generative faith for a new generation,” a move from “conventional Christianity to intentional Christianity,” and the “deep shift” taking place in the church were the central ideas of three lectures given March 16 as part of the Festival. Follow-up group conversations and panalogues on Tuesday continued those themes.
The annual event, held under the topic “New Ways of Being Church,” brought together an oversubscribed attendance, comprised of faculty, students, community leaders, and Seminary alums returning to reunite with their alma mater, from the surrounding Louisville and Indiana region and as far away as Alaska.
The program, sponsored by Louisville Seminary’s Office of Lifelong Learning and Advanced Degrees and the Office of Alum and Church Relations, offered worship services led by area pastors and Seminary alums, book signings, alum gatherings, and numerous small-group sessions with the lecturers.
Support also was provided by Mid-Kentucky Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Caldwell and Greenhoe Lectures Endowments, and Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
This year, Louisville Seminary invited a trio of extraordinarily creative and dynamic thinkers and leaders who are deeply concerned with the future of traditionally mainline congregations and their relevance for the 21st Century. More than 350 people attended to hear from American religion and culture scholar Diana Butler Bass; biblical and Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, and Christian leader, interpreter, writer, and innovator Brian McLaren as they engaged participants in conversations about “how the Church of the 21st Century can find renewal and transformation through people and congregations that actively participate in bringing justice, mercy, and public leadership where they are needed most,” said Seminary President Dean K. Thompson in his opening welcome.
“This topic is important to our mission at Louisville Seminary of calling and educating men and women through the church for participation in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ in ecumenical, religiously diverse, multicultural, and global contexts,” Thompson added.
“There is a shift going on in the church right now and within denominational structures,” said Gail Monsma, a third-year Master of Divinity Degree student at LPTS who attended the Festival lectures. “People are starved for a relationship with God, and we as the church need to wake up and recognize different ways of helping people connect with God.”
Monsma said that reality of the current state of the church – outlined provocatively by the lecturers – really resonated with her.
“What all three reiterated is that (people) do not want a strong hierarchical model,” she said. “This conference gives pastors … the hope, the call, and the mission to really speak out and re-educate.”
Butler Bass, a senior fellow at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and author of the best-selling Christianity for the Rest of Us, pointed out that society is beyond labels such as “mainline” and “evangelical.”
“People don’t even like the label ‘Christian’ anymore,” she said.
The bottom line is that in a post partisan world, “Christians are not to label themselves as part of a party,” Butler Bass contended. “Instead, we need to be in the language business,” communicating the word of God.
To love God and to love your neighbor is what is commanded, and in doing that, we become “grounded in a way of life,” she said. “It is not us, verses them. It is only us.”
Her cohorts echoed the message.
“A major change is under way in American Christianity today,” proclaimed Borg, the Hundere Professor in Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University. “It is the emergence of a new way of being Christian.”
He said the “way forward” will be through “communities of transformation,” which are centered on things such as adult theological re-education, Christian formation, and a return to spiritual practices including worship, and especially prayer.
The way forward “is to be communities of participation in God’s passion,” said Borg, author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
God is passionate about the transformation of us and the world, he said.
“What would happen if we began to see what we are … as disciple-forming communities, a community of practice?” asked McLaren, the author of Finding Our Way Again, among other books. “What if our product were Christ-like people?”
Festival attendee George McDonald, who attended Louisville Seminary in the 1960s and whose wife is a graduate of the Seminary, said what’s exciting about this new way of being church is that it brings a sense of optimism.
“After about 60 years of watching the church die, we’ve finally realized that what this is, is a preparation for something new and radical for a new age and global community,” he said. “There’s a kind of resurgence of hope for the church.”
What others said about the 2009 Festival of Theology:
The Presbyterian Outlook - As Mainline recedes, Festival of Theology explores new ways of being Christian by Leslie Scanlon
Presbyterian News Service, PC (USA) - Eye of the hurricane: Renowned theologians discuss ‘new ways of being church’ by Eva Stimson, Special to Presbyterian News Service
Because of publishers' rights to materials, Louisville Seminary did not receive permission to record or share the content of the speakers' lectures. However, the following links will help you stay connected:
Outline for Marcus Borg Lecture, March 16, 2009: The Way Forward Outline
An explanation of the significance of the bridge-to-nowhere by Brian McLaren on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNKbd3EapBI
Staying connected with Diana Butler Bass through her personal website: http://www.dianabutlerbass.com/