Church Happens

By Thomas Hermans-Webster

Church is a communal opportunity to partner with God for the healing of the world.

Christian open and relational theologies evoke critically important questions for the Christian witness to our life together today. Who, for example, is God? Who are we as human people? How does God relate to us, how do we relate to one another, and how do we relate to others in this world, our common home? Amid individualism, dualism, mechanical thinking, or some overlapping combination of these stances, open and relational theologies signal an important theme for our life together: community matters. This essay will develop this theme and pay particular attention to the Christian communities known as “church.” I am guided by the question: How can Christian open and relational theologies encourage partnerships with God that show that community matters for the life of the world? I think we should reconsider “The Church” as a communal opportunity to partner with God and bear witness to God’s responsive and creative love for the world.

Norman Pittenger is a process theologian who has influenced my thinking about and participation in church. He called church a “social process” that happens in the creative partnership between God and communities of humans who respond to Jesus’s life with love, discipleship, and participation in the ongoing work of Jesus’s ministry. Like many open and relational theologians, Pittenger encourages me to focus more on how church happens than on any one or two institutions that we may know as “The Church.” When I focus my Christian discipleship on the process of happening—on how church happens—I pay more concern to all the folks who influence and are affected by churches. I also think about the time of church, about who we have been in the past, and who we might become in the future.

Rather than thinking “Oh! I should go to church now,” as if church is only ever a static place that is somewhere I as a disciple am not, open and relational notions of church invite us to think about church as happening. Church becomes. Church emerges through the relationships that knit Christians together through time and with one another, the world, and God. How these relationships happen influences the church, and how the church happens influences these relationships. Recognizing church as a dynamic, interconnected community of people who live their life in Christ together, open and relational ecclesiology focuses on questions like:

Who have we been, and who has taught us about Christ?

What relationships create and foster healthy communities who reveal and enact the love of God for the life of the world today?

Who inspires our community to live more deeply in love with God and God’s world?

How can we reveal and enact the love of God for the world in our interactions with people who are not active in our community?

Fair warning: I do not have all the answers to these questions, but I know that community matters. As Christians wrestle with these questions within our specific contexts of church, we may well produce answers that are culturally relevant for our times and places. It is fair to say that open and relational theology of church is itself in process.

God’s love graciously makes space for our consistent wrestling and questions as we seek to bear witness to Christ at work in our world. This is not rootless or aimless relativism: our theological thinking about church is one way that we, the community of Christ, join an ongoing and tremendously diverse testimony to the truth of God’s love for the life of the world in its actions and in its self-reflection. Our ecclesiology asks about and demonstrates how we relate to one another, God, and the world. For the rest of this essay, I am going to offer a few answers to these questions, but I need you, dear reader. Community matters, and we’re becoming a community if you’ve read this far. As you read, I encourage you to engage with the ideas and to engage with God. In so doing, I hope you will join God on the way of abundant life for your specific context and that you will likewise encourage others to do the same.

Who have we been, and who has taught us about Christ?

Our clearest root is Jesus of Nazareth, and we can say that we have been the community of people who experience life and love because of Jesus. We have been the community through whom the world has experienced Jesus. We have also been the community who has done great harm to the world in Jesus’ name, and for this, we must confess and repent. In confession and repentance, we experience the grace of love that weaves us together. We could not grow deeper in love with God, through Christ, without someone else loving us into our life. Who has loved you into church, into life in Christ?

What relationships create and foster healthy communities who reveal and enact the love of God for the life of the world today?

This may not surprise you by now, but I think that relationships with God help create healthy communities that reveal and enact the love of God for the life of the world. Some of these relationships will contribute more constructively to the community than others. Antagonism towards God and God’s desires for love, truth, and beauty will be less constructive than relationships of willing cooperation or enthusiasm. Partnership with God flourishes in communities that name and encourage faithful attention to life with God.

This may seem obvious, but it is easy to wander away from meaningful partnering with God in our lives. Western, white, and modern values of self-sufficiency and selfishness often creep into Christian communities and challenge divine priorities of love, compassion, and creativity. Life with God is, at its core, a loving, creating, and humbling relationship that opens each of us to the universal truth that we are all related to one another. As such, there is little room for modern, capitalist values of self-sufficiency and selfishness when we are partnering with God.

Who inspires our community to live more deeply in love with God and God’s world?

When we participate in life with God, God reveals to us the responsive and creative love that weaves the cosmos together. And it’s not a one-time revelation either. Growing in life with God entails fuller disclosures of possibilities for even fuller adventure, zest, beauty, truth, and peace. God reveals ecosystems of life in all of their beauty and their suffering. What may have felt like a lonely solitude in love with God is actually an opportunity to join in deep solidarity with the world as God loves it. The other folks we experience become crucially important for our experiences of reality with God.

In love, the Holy Spirit breathes encouragement into our lives, literally inspiring, in-Spiriting, us to live in love with our relatives throughout the cosmos. God inspires us into life together as sharers of God’s profound love. In love with God and the world, we are encouraged to struggle for justice in the face of oppression and bear the sufferings of one another. When we do this, we join in God’s shalom for the world.

How do and can we reveal and enact the love of God for the life of the world in our interactions with people who are not active in our community?

We are made through the relationships we have with each other and the world in which we live. Alongside community matters, responsibility for the well-being of others is an important theme for open and relational theology. Events are not predetermined; what we do and how we do it matters. What we do and how we do it shapes the material of the universe in particular—and sometimes unexpected—ways.

As Christ’s body, we reveal and enact divine love when we live into the Spirit’s calls for creativity, passion, liberation struggle, and peace. Karen Baker-Fletcher has said that evil happens through interlocking oppressions. In your community, church can reveal and enact God’s love through fighting anti-Black racism, hosting mutual aid networks or food justice initiatives, caring for ecosystems that support other-than-human creatures as well as humans, and providing shelter to people who experience homelessness, to immigrants and refugees, and to people who seek safety from abusive households. Church happens through God’s continued love-in-action for the world, healing us and restoring us to communal life. The healing of the world will emerge when we partner with God as communities, stronger because God’s love for us and the world weaves us together.

Question: How does your community partner with God to love the world?

Rev. Thomas Hermans-Webster is Assistant Professor of United Methodist Studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. He is the son of two United Methodist pastors and grew up in parsonages and congregations across North Alabama. Thomas earned his Ph.D. at Boston University. He is a United Methodist Elder, a process theologian, and married to Corrie.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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