We were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee as we had done so many times. Our conversation was unhurried, punctuated by stretches of easy silence. We had been talking about the Holy Spirit, children, and art. Now we simply stared out the window. I was in my early 30s, on the edge of experiencing a call to ministry. My friend, Betty, who was twice my age, suddenly leaned forward, startling me with her fierce expression. She then spoke. Her words darted into the air between us and hung there like dragonflies, mesmerizing in their alien beauty. I had no idea why she said what she did to me at that moment, because it had nothing to do with what we had been discussing, and after she finished I did not agree with her, though I kept silent. She was, after all, a mentor.
“Elaine,” she said, fixing her large brown eyes upon me so that I could not look away, “the most important thing to impart to a new believer is the conviction that God loves her. The second most important thing is to teach her to pray. If you do those two things everything else will sort itself out. The worst thing we can do with new believers is give them doctrine. It ruins them every time.”
This was spoken by a woman who loved the Bible more than food. This was a woman with a keen mind. What had drawn me to her in the first place was the depth and beauty of her teaching of Scripture, her wisdom, and profound insight. Betty was like one of the desert mothers and fathers, only I didn’t know about them in those days. Betty was able to parse out a text so that it healed, confronted, and transformed others, including me. I had been changed, liberated by her teaching of doctrine.
So I didn’t believe her when she said doctrine was the worst thing to give a new Christian, because I thought that what she had given me that had been so transformative was good doctrine. Maybe I thought that because at that time on most days I was still living in my head.
Besides, if we didn’t give new believers sound doctrine, wouldn’t they slip? Wouldn’t they fall into heresy? Wouldn’t they wander from the faith? I respected Betty’s wisdom, but this time I was pretty sure she had it wrong.
The years rolled on and I went through an MDiv program and then a PhD in systematic theology. Along the way I became a pastor and went through our lengthy ordination process in The UMC. Now I am a seminary professor who teaches evangelism. That is, I teach people how to initiate others holistically into God’s kingdom, into a life of following Jesus by loving God and neighbor. I have become a professor of, in Betty’s words, “what to impart to new believers so that we don’t ruin them, so that everything else will sort itself out.”
And guess what I discovered along the way, on that 20 year journey from Betty’s kitchen table to my office and classroom at Perkins School of Theology? Betty was right!
What we give to new believers are the building blocks for God’s church. Do you want a church that is about living in your head theologically? Give them doctrine. Do you want a church that truly loves God and neighbor? Teach them they are loved and teach them to pray. To ground a new believer in her belovedness and in a robust life of prayer doesn’t mean we never teach doctrine or that what we believe intellectually doesn’t matter.
But I guarantee this. If we teach people doctrine without an even deeper grounding in a life of love and prayer, we will produce the kind of church that alienates its neighbors and splinters endlessly into factions, each of which fights over its superior version of doctrine. We will create communities that are all about themselves and that view their neighbors as either a commodity to exploit or a “them” to keep out. We will produce religious violence.
If we ground people in love and prayer, we will give them practices for discernment that will protect them from theology and practices that are death dealing, that are harsh, bigoted, culturally bound, disrespectful, dehumanizing, and violent. We will help them, in the words of Paul to his young protégé Timothy, to be those whose actions are worthy of Christ and “who interpret the message of truth correctly” (2 Tim 2:15, CEB).
Betty never used the word “contemplative” that I can recall, nor did she ever utter the word “ecclesiology.” She wasn’t a professional theologian; she was an evangelical pastor. But what she gave me that day was the nucleus for understanding the church as a community of the beloved whose vocation is to pay attention and cooperate with the God who is love. That is, she gave me a contemplative ecclesiology.
A lot is being written about the missional church these days. I myself have published articles and books in which I describe the missional church as the healthy church. But beneath missionality — being sent out, to be exact — must be the bedrock of the contemplative path. Mission without grounding in deep practices of prayer and discernment is a house built on sand.
What do I mean by contemplation? And what is a contemplative ecclesiology? How does disciple formation happen in such a church? What exactly – what habits and practices – should we “impart to new believers”? How does the contemplative life as a community lead to the missional life as the people of God? To answer these I’d like to begin with a reading from Matt 21:12-15. Then we will consider four hallmarks of a contemplative ecclesiology.
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry. (NRSV)
The setting for this passage is the events we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Jesus has just ridden into town on the young donkey, he has just experienced all these people shouting “Hosannah,” and he knows he is marked for death. Knowing that he has very little time left to teach and preach, Jesus heads straight for the temple. He tells all the religious leaders then and for all time what the house of God is and isn’t for. He uses both words and action. In referring to his Father’s house he means not just a building, the temple, but the ecclesia, the gathered people of God for all time. There are 4 marks to Jesus’ vision for the gathered people of God:
Significantly, shortly after this event Jesus is approached by the Pharisees who want to know which commandment is the greatest. They hope to entrap him. Jesus quotes the Shema (Deut 6:5), then says the second greatest commandment is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, love of God and neighbor, he says, hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22:34-40).
This is an ecclesiological vision in which people know they are loved, and out of that belovedness, become people who pray and act for the wellbeing of all kinds of others, the “nations.” It is an ecclesiology that resists exploitation, manipulation, and coercion in the name of evangelism. It is an ecclesiology in which doctrine is tested by its ability to produce the fruit of love for God and neighbor. Why is this a contemplative vision? Because it is grounded in the central fact of divine love, which leads always to prophetic action in the world.