Emergence of the Word

I knew it was the right place because the sound of the bass made the sidewalk tremble. The electronica house music beckoned me through the doors. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a large room with what looked to be a dance floor and a single bar stool at the center. The music faded out and a band, hidden in the shadows, started to play. On the large screen above them pictures and video clips danced with the ambient music. I joined the others assembled for worship as we found our seats around the dance floor. Soon a barefoot man walked into the middle of the crowd and picked up a microphone that was lying on the table. The band continued to play, but now in a hushed whisper. “As the band plays,” the man said, “you are invited to wander around the room to the three stations for spiritual practices.”

The music picked back up and the man withdrew from the floor. Some people stayed in their chairs, eyes closed, bobbing their heads to the music. Others walked around the room, visiting the stations. In one corner white candles surrounded a few images of Jesus and saints. In another corner people were writing thoughts on the walls or in notebooks on the ground, and some were painting on large canvases. The last corner had a few tables with loaves of bread and bottles of wine. People tore chunks from the loaves and poured wine into paper cups. Free wine seemed like a good idea, so I poured myself a generous cup and went back to my seat.

The band shifted to familiar contemporary worship songs, but with an alternative edge. As I listened, I sipped my wine and watched a montage of pictures on the big screen. Soon enough the barefoot man returned and the music faded out; it was time for his sermon, which was a traditional evangelical message—nothing revolutionary, nothing memorable. But the form was unique. I had heard plenty of conversational sermons before, where preachers chat from the pulpit, telling story after story. Yet, for this emergent preacher, conversation wasn’t merely a homiletic technique; instead, the preaching form itself was dialogical. The preacher asked a question, in response someone from the crowd offered a thought, and then the preacher used that insight to keep his message going.

I was looking for a different way of being church. In the churches in which I had grown up, an unbridgeable distance existed between pew and pulpit. The preacher stood on the stage and spoke down to us. The layout of the worship space displayed the structure of authority over the Word of God. It didn’t matter if it was the Roman Catholic Church of my early years or the storefront Pentecostal congregation I went to in high school. In both cases, the power to proclaim the gospel rested on the one with the microphone, the one who stood on the platform in front of the congregation. The preacher or priest was there to give and I was there to receive. There wasn’t any space for disagreement and dialogue about what was coming from the pulpit. I had to wait until the car ride home to hear what other people thought about the sermon or anything else about our worship service, thus, it was hard not to think of worship as a staged performance for my spiritual enjoyment. These different churches made one message quite clear: worship could go on without my minor role as a member of the audience; I was a replaceable part in the ecclesial machine.

I had read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian in college and found some hope as he gestured toward new and emergent possibilities for a life of faith;[1] and I thought I had glimpsed this new version of Christianity during the worship service with the barefoot, dialogical preacher. But the rest of the liturgy left me disappointed, for it did not make room for me to connect with others. The dark room made it difficult to look anyone in the eyes. Because the music was so loud, I could barely hear my own voice, let alone the voice of the person sitting next to me. Much of the worship seemed to duplicate the self-servicing American way of life—like when I wait in line to fill up my car at the gas station while everyone else does the same, and we never so much as let a word pass among us.

Nonetheless, I was captured by the moment of corporate reflection on Scripture. The gathered offered their words in worshipful conjugation and thus became the word of God for us—a corporate word that incorporated all of us into the body of Christ, the corpus Christi, the Word made flesh.

Augustine of Hippo described this process when he explained how knowledge of God is received from other human beings. For Augustine, we receive Christ from one another. That’s why sacraments, like communion, pass from one hand to another hand, from one body to another body, and those material relations compose the body of Christ. Regarding the proclamation of the gospel, God draws Christians into communion with the Word through mutual instruction. In De doctrina christiana Augustine writes,

How would there be truth in what is said—“For the temple of God is holy, which you are” (1 Cor. 3:17)—if God did not give responses from a human temple, but called out all that he wished to be taught to men from heaven and through angels? For charity itself, which holds men together in a knot of unity, would not have a means of infusing souls and almost mixing them together, if men could teach nothing to men.[2]

The truth of God doesn’t come from the mouths of angels. Instead, God gives us the Bible, a polyvocal record of the Word—full of rough edges and strange combinations, which invite us into a posture of patience where we can receive beautiful revelations. According to God’s plan, Augustine claims, the good news in Scripture emerges from the conversation of the gathered body of Christ. Perhaps a better way to put it is to say that the good news is the “knot of unity” created as people gather to discuss Scriptures and discern the ongoing movement of the Spirit in the body of Christ. John H. Yoder said it this way: “Because God the Spirit speaks in the meeting, conversation is the setting for truth-finding.”[3] We find the truth together; Jesus, the one who is the Truth, flows through our words and thus fuses our souls together, as Augustine put it, “almost mixing them together.”[4]

This “togetherness” is what I had hoped to find when I joined the emergent church for worship. It’s not that I didn’t have friends in my life; it was more that the churches I was a part of didn’t display our dependency on one another for God’s grace. Worship is a theological statement. Doctrine is performed liturgically. Yet what I usually experienced at church was a doctrine of grace that told me that the people onstage were responsible to give God’s word, and I was there to receive it. Even though I had heard many Protestant churches talk about the priesthood of all believers, I found that their worship displayed a hierarchy of power. Not everyone was authorized to share as the Spirit led. There was no space in the liturgy for God to speak through the people in the pews. The vision of the sixteenth-century European reformers, spread throughout the land with the slogan “the priesthood of all believers,” has been stripped of its radical meaning; in the mouths of contemporary Protestants, it is no longer a rallying cry for a movement that seeks to level ecclesial authority structures in order to create spaces for egalitarian power-sharing.

At their best, emergent forms of church make room for this radical egalitarianism to take hold of a people. God’s word is allowed to speak through the voices of the gathered community. This is the Apostle Paul’s vision for worship; as Yoder notes, “Paul tells his readers that everyone who has something to say, something given by the Holy Spirit to him or her to say, can have the floor.” People make room for one another to share, to speak what God has given them for mutual edification. Therefore, as Yoder goes on to write, we find ways to “yield the floor,” to share the microphone.[5] The liturgical shape of the congregation transforms the laity into priests, who give and receive the Holy Spirit, and through this egalitarian movement of God, individuals are formed into a corporate body that lives through the gifts of all.

Peter Rollins seems to be the most articulate advocate of these insights among the ever-expanding pool of emergent authors. The church, according to Rollins, is a sacred place through which “the faithful attempt to create a space where the Christ-event is encouraged to arrive both in themselves and in others.” Rollins has experienced “a renewed openness to genuine dialogue” among emergent communities as they “replace the standard monologue of those who would wish” to “exclude the other.” Monologic worship disempowers the community, whereas dialogic liturgies unhandle the reigns of power so that “we may become a dwelling-place in which God can reside and from which God can flow.”[6] For Rollins these communities meet in bars and clubs, taking the form of an avant-garde performance, provoking the attendees and participants into a conversation after the show.

Liturgical Zeugnis

Fred invited me to his church, Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship (CHMF). I was new to Durham, North Carolina, and had been church shopping for the past month. I walked into the Quaker meetinghouse—which the Mennonites had been renting in the evenings for worship—a little before six o’clock in the evening. A few people were taking hymnals from crates and placing them on the pews. Fred and his wife, Elizabeth, were helping to set up. They welcomed me and handed me a stack of hymnals to distribute among the empty pews. I noticed someone else emerge from the back of the room with a simple wooden pulpit, which he placed at the far side of the room. With this last adjustment, people found their places in the semicircle arrangement of benches. After a few more latecomers quietly found seats, someone walked up to the pulpit and led us in our call to worship.

During the service people from behind me, in front of me, and to my right and left got up to lead various parts of our worship. Someone offered a prayer, another person led us in a few songs, and four different people took turns reading from the Bible. After hearing from the Scriptures, a woman got up from her pew, took her turn at the pulpit, and preached to us. When she had finished, she returned to her seat and someone else went up to the pulpit and invited the rest of us to offer our thoughts about the sermon or to share whatever else the Holy Spirit may have spoken during the service. This was the high point of the service, the culmination of worship.

In the Mennonite tradition, this liturgical moment of conversation and communal discernment is called the Zeugnis.[7] During this time, the gathered community is asked to discern whether or not the gospel was preached, and if it was indeed preached, to then discern what this gospel may mean for the life of the church. The preacher is deliberately divested of control over the proclamation of the gospel, and the last word belongs to the congregation, not to the preacher. Because the church is an assembly of priests, the final authority to speak for God comes through the conversation or the Zeugnis. Through the power of the Spirit, God’s word echoes through the voices of all who gather.[8]

After singing one more song and receiving a benediction, I made my way to the door. But before I had a chance to leave, someone intercepted me. He introduced himself as Tom and asked if I would be willing to come back next week and read one of the assigned Bible passage during worship. I couldn’t believe his willingness to empower me, a stranger, to speak God’s word. So I went back the following Sunday, and I’ve been going back for the past eight years. As I keep on returning for worship, I’ve found myself being drawn into a community of priests, where anyone can mediate God’s life to me, where the Holy Spirit can offer a fresh word through unexpected visitors. Now, for me, the conviction about the church as a priesthood of all believers is no longer a Protestant tenant of faith that doesn’t need to be liturgically displayed—a belief that is affirmed as an invisible psychological reality without much consideration to enfleshment. I am learning that, for Mennonites, words must become flesh, convictions are communicated with bodies, and faith is a way of life.[9]

This kind of worship is a flow of bodies where hierarchies of power are exposed as blockages of God’s movement in the world. This worship is a gift of grace, where we are invited to let the Holy Spirit form all who gather into an assemblage of priests, the church, always listening for new voices to speak the good news into our lives.[10]

[1] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001). Neo, the sage of McLaren’s book, articulates this communal and egalitarian vision for emerging churches: “Community means that we create a place of belonging where people can learn to believe the good news [. . . where] spirituality itself is communal.” That’s why “we read the Bible as a community, always listening for the insights and input of others” (155).

[2] Augustine, De doctrina christiana, prologue, 6; Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1958), 5–6.

[3] Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 70.

[4] My reading of Augustine is indebted to three essays, two of which appear in De doctrina christiana: A Classic of Western Culture, eds. Duane W. H. Arnold and Pamela Bright (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995): R. A. Markus, “Signs, Communication, and Communities in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana,” 97–108; and John C. Cavadini, “The Sweetness of the Word: Salvation and Rhetoric in Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana,” 164–81. The other is by Rowan Williams, “Language, Reality and Desire in Augustine’s de doctrina,” Literature and Theology 3, no. 2 (July 1989): 138–50. Here is one important passage from Williams’s essay: For Augustine, “the function of difficulty in guaranteeing that learning from Scripture is a process—not a triumphant moment of penetration and mastery, but an extended play of invitation and exploration (the resonances of these metaphors are deliberate, and not wholly absent from Augustine’s vocabulary). The Christian life itself, as we have seen, is in constant danger of premature closure, the supposition that the end of desire has been reached and the ambiguities of history and language put behind us; and thus the difficulty of Scripture is itself a kind of parable of our condition. We cannot properly enjoy what we swiftly and definitively possess” (142).

[5] Yoder, Body Politics, 61.

[6] Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 41, 53, and 71.

[7] See John S. Oyer, “Early Forms of Anabaptist Zeugnis After Sermons,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 72, no. 3 (July 1998): 449–54.

[8] Anyone who is familiar with Mennonites will notice a glaring absence in my discussion: what about nonviolence? Worship at CHMF has shown me that nonviolence is not only about resistance to war and killing. Nonviolence is a way of life that we learn through worship that is centered around conversation, where disagreements and conflicts are given space to emerge without the threat of violence. Pacifism is a lifelong commitment to the virtue of patience—of being present with one another, even with our enemies, and refusing the shortcut of violence. For a further investigation of the connections between nonviolence, patience, and ways of knowing, see Chris K. Huebner, A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, and Identity (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006), especially chapter 6: “Globalization, Theory, and Dialogical Vulnerability: John Howard Yoder and the Possibility of a Pacifist Epistemology.”

[9] For Mennonites, our knowledge of God and the movements of our bodies are inseparable; as Hans Denck, a sixteenth-century Mennonite theologian, wrote, “We cannot know Christ unless we follow him daily in life.” Quoted in Harry J. Huebner, Echoes of the Word: Theological Ethics as Rhetorical Practice (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2005), 44.

[10] I am grateful to Scott Schomburg for his comments on an early version of this article.