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Paper | A Presentation on Hans-Georg Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer | by Steve Thomason | A Term Paper | Presented to Dr. Craig Van Gelder | Luther Seminary | As a Requirement in Course LD8910 The Hermeneutics of Leading in Mission | St. Paul, Minnesota | 2011

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oldGadamerHans-Georg Gadamer was born in 1900 and died in 2002. One could say that he was truly a man of the 20th century. This is fitting since his life and work demonstrated the transitional nature of the 20th century as the academic disciplines made a turn from Enlightenment thinking to a postmodern sensibility. Gadamer’s presentation of philosophical hermeneutics was one of the pivotal contributions that brought about that turn.

His Life and Work

A Biographical Sketch

Gadamer spent his early years in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) which was one of the biggest cities in Germany. ((Robert J. Dostal, The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, Cambridge Companions to Philosophy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14.)) World War I raged around him during his adolescence, but he lived far from the fronts and was physically removed from the worst of it. ((Patricia Altenbernd Johnson, On Gadamer, Wadsworth Philosophers Series (Australia; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thompson Learning, 2000), 2.)) He did not know the physical trauma of war firsthand, but, at age 18, during the final year of the Great War, he encountered the shattered world of German idealism. He graduated from the Holy Spirit Gymnasium in Breslau and enrolled in the Breslau University. ((Hans-Georg Gadamer and Lewis Edwin Hahn, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Library of Living Philosophers (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1997), 3.)) His father, Johannes, was a prominent chemistry professor and in 1919 accepted an appointment at Marburg University. Hans-Georg followed his father to Marburg and settled in on a philosophy major, much to his father’s chagrin. ((Dostal, 15.))

Gadamer was a young student surrounded by many new voices that sought to make sense of a world shattered by war. He was influenced by teachers like Paul Natorp, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Hartmann. The intellectuals at Marburg “lived in the expectation of a new philosophical orientation, which was particularly tied to the dark, magical word, ‘phenomenology.’ ((Gadamer and Hahn, 7.)) The intellectual world was buzzing with new voices like Barth in theology, Freud in psychology, Marx and Weber in sociology, and Nietzche in philosophy. It was only when Martin Heidegger stepped into the picture that Gadamer was able to start making sense of things. Heidegger realized that it was necessary to abandon the neo-Kantians with their concept of self-consciousness, and the Hegelians with their need to create a unifying system, and see things in light of the historicity of human knowledge. Gadamer would become a student of Heidegger for many years.

It is interesting to note that Gadamer began his academic career as a philologist. His doctoral dissertation was titled Das Wesen der Lust nach den platonischen Dialogen (The Essence of Pleasure in the dialogues of Plato). He received his doctorate in 1922—but felt he was far too young to have earned it—and spent much of his career studying Greek thought and culture. Gadamer worked as a dozent (similar to an assistant professor in the United States) with Heidegger at Marburg from 1924-1938. The rise of the Third Reich in 1933 disrupted Gadamer’s career development. It became difficult for him to work at Marburg with the rising pressure to capitulate to Hitler. He did not want to be a martyr and he did not want to leave Germany. Gadamer learned to play the political game and walk a thin line that kept him alive. He was able get a faculty position at Leipzig.

The years at Leipzig saw the fall of the Third Reich, an American Occupation, and the subsequent Russian occupation. He was able to avoid ties to the Nazis, and because of this, became the Rector of Leipzig under the American occupation. The Russians were distrustful of most people and Gadamer had to learn how to be play their political game. He helped many people leave Leipzig and find positions that would ensure their freedom. Eventually he was able to convince the Russians to let him go to Frankfurt to pursue his love of his country’s literature. ((Johnson, 7.))

He spent two years in Frankfurt and then assumed Karl Jasper’s chair at Heidelberg in 1949. Gadamer felt that this post at Heidelberg marked the beginning of his truly academic life. He was able to untangle himself from the mess of politics both outside and inside the university and focus on his own plans of work. It is not surprising that Gadamer’s philosophy included the ability to accommodate multiple perspectives in humble dialogue. His experience prepared him and framed his perspective for this important philosophical move. This process reached its first conclusion with the publication of Truth and Method in 1960. ((Gadamer and Hahn, 16.))

It is important to pause this chronological account at this point and make an observation. Gadamer was sixty years old when he published Truth and Method. It could be stated that this monograph is the single most important contribution that he made to the field of hermeneutics—perhaps even the catalyst for the hermeneutical turn itself. And yet, it came just eight years before his retirement from the academy. The fact of this delayed contribution is indicative of Gadamer’s philosophy and style. He states, regarding this,

“In fact, the rise of my ‘hermeneutical philosophy’ must be traced back to nothing more pretentious than my effort to be theoretically accountable for the style of my studies and my teaching. Practice came first. For as long ago as I can remember, I have been concerned not to say too much and not to lose myself in theoretical constructions which were not fully made good by experience.” ((Ibid., 16.))

Despite his monumental contribution to the field of hermeneutics, Gadamer was first and foremost a teacher. He never traveled much while he was teaching, and turned down numerous invitations to travel abroad as a guest lecturer, because he felt too responsible to his students to be gone from class. ((Ibid., 18.))

Gadamer retired from full-time teaching in 1968 and began a whole new life. His retirement afforded him the opportunity to accept invitations to lecture in the United States. The opportunity to grow and interact in the English language—heretofore only experienced in written form—helped Gadamer grow in the practical experience of his own theory that truth and meaning are found in the process of the interaction of language. Gadamer was as active as a scholar during the thirty years of his retirement as he was when teaching. Now he was free to travel, write, and engage in dialogue with the ever- growing number of post modern thinkers that emerged in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

A Conceptual Lineage

Patricia Johnson traces a brief and helpful conceptual lineage that links Gadamer’s philosophy to that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Martin Heidegger. ((Johnson, 9-15.)) A brief synopsis of each of these thinkers will help to build a conceptual frame for understanding Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.

schleiermacherSchleiermacher (1768-1834) believed that there was a general hermeneutic that was based in the universal ability of humans to learn and understand language. He distinguishes two types of understanding that form the basis of his hermeneutics. The first is the grammatical. Human beings learn language and come to understand the meaning of words. The second is psychological. Schleiermacher used a divinatory method in which one individual is able to get inside the perspective of another individual based upon the common elements of humanity shared by all individuals. Gadamer gleaned the idea of the universality of hermeneutics from Schleiermacher’s legacy.

DiltheyDilthey (1833-1911) was also deeply influenced by Schleiermacher. However, Dilthey rejects Schleiermacher’s reliance on intuition and feeling as the mean to access the inner aspects of life and proposes the historicality of human life instead. Human beings live in temporal space and create expressions of their lived experiences. The best way to understand the inner human life is to engage in the object of human creation, such as a work of art. Gadamer built heavily upon Dilthey’s notion of historicality.

HeideggerHeidegger (1889-1976) was Gadamer’s teacher and mentor for many years. Heidegger believed that understanding was ontological. It is the way that humans exist in the world. It is not the understanding of another’s mind, like Schleiermacher supposed, rather it is the understanding of self and grasping the possibilities of becoming what we are. Gadamer took Heidegger’s recognition of self-understanding to be the basic starting place for the entire process of understanding.

Summary of Gadamer’s Contribution to the Field of Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics as an identified discipline is relatively new in the philosophic discussion. However, it has truly been at the core of the philosophy since Plato and Aristotle. The archetypal debate has revolved around the locus of meaning. Is meaning externally located in a universal reality, as Plato believed? Or, is meaning formulated internally within the experience of the observer, as Aristotle postulated?

The debate has taken on many flavors throughout its various historical iterations, but has essentially fluctuated between these two poles. Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics finds its place in the tension between them. He—being a student of Plato and sympathetic to the romantic deconstruction of German Idealism—held to the intuition that there is an external reality. However, he recognized the limitation of human finitude and built his hermeneutic on the idea that all understanding begins within the dialogue between the human and the world.

It will be helpful to decipher Gadamer’s philosophy by defining two key terms: horizons and linguisticality.

Gadamer introduces the concept of horizons:

fusion of horizons“Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of ‘situation’ by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence an essential part of the concept of situation is the concept of ‘horizon.’ The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point…. A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest to him. Contrariwise, to have an horizon means not to be limited to what is nearest, but to be able to see beyond it. A person who has an horizon knows the relative significance of everything within this horizon, as near or far, great or small. Similarly, the working out of the hermeneutical situation means the achievement of the right horizon of enquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.” ((Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975), 269.))

The fact that each human being is limited to a unique horizon leads to the second term. Linguisticality is the idea that humanity is limited within the horizon of language. Language sits at the core of Gadamer’s hermeneutic. Human beings cannot understand the world without the use of language, and yet, language itself is limited. “All human speaking is finite in such a way that there is within it an infinity of meaning to be elaborated and interpreted. That is why the hermeneutical phenomenon also can be illuminated only in the light of this fundamental finitude of being, which is wholly linguistic in character.” ((Ibid., 416.))

Here we see the conceptual lineage of Gadamer’s thought listed above come together. The human attempt to understand both the outer world of the object and the inner world of the subject meets in the expandable limitation of language.

…it is the context of problems surrounding the indissoluble connection between thinking and speaking which compels hermeneutics to become philosophy. One must always think in a language, even if one does not always have to think in the same language. Hermeneutics cannot evade claiming universality because language as linguisticality—Sprachlichkeit—constitutes a human capacity inseparably linked with rationality as such. ((Gadamer and Hahn, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 25.))

What is hermeneutics, then? If the human is bound by limited horizons within the confines of language, how does one come to understanding? Gadamer explains,

The hermeneutical task becomes automatically a questioning of things and is always in part determined by this. This places hermeneutical work on a firm basis. If a person is trying to understand something, he will not be able to rely from the start on his own chance previous ideas, missing as logically and stubbornly as possible the actual meaning of the text until the latter becomes so persistently audible that it breaks through the imagined understanding of it. Rather, a person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s quality of newness. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” ((Gadamer, Truth and Method, 238.))

One of the most common examples that Gadamer uses to demonstrate his hermeneutic is in the field of art. When a piece of art is created, be it visual or linguistic art, the piece has a reality—a horizon—of its own. The viewer of the art has her own horizon. She brings to the art her language, experience, and expectation of the piece. As the viewer addresses the art, the two horizons come together. The art informs the viewer, but the viewer also informs the art. Here we find the most well-known expression of Gadamer’s philosophy. When the art and the viewer meet there is a fusion of horizons. It is impossible for the viewer to interpret the meaning of the art that is latent in the art itself. Gadamer says this is true because “in my analysis of the universal linguisticality of man’s relation to the world, the limitations of the fields of experience from which the investigation took its start should unwittingly predetermine the result.” ((Hans Georg Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” Continuum (Chicago, IL) 8, no. 1-2 (1970): 78.))

The fusion of horizons happens in every aspect of life as we attempt to interpret everything around us. It is true for art, science, and even biblical literature. Gadamer refers to the interpretation of historical texts (including scripture),

It is true that the historical ‘worlds’ that succeed one another in the course of history are different from one another and from the world of today; but it is always, in whatever tradition we consider it, a human, ie a linguistically constituted world that presents itself to us. Every such world, as linguistically constituted, is always open, of itself, to every possible insight and hence for every expansion of its own world-picture, and accordingly available to others. ((Gadamer, Truth and Method, 405.))

 A Critique

There are two contributions that Gadamer makes to the missional church. The first is that of humble dialogue. The second has to do with the Holy Spirit.

Gadamer modeled—both in his personal manner and in his philosophical hermeneutics—a core value that reflects the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He was humble. His humility caused him to listen to the other. Gadamer was known for his quiet spirit and his propensity to actively engage in those with whom he was having a dialogue—even a full-on debate—to the point that he would stop and question himself. ((Hans-Georg Gadamer and Riccardo Dottori, A Century of Philosophy (New York: Continuum, 2003), 3.)) Gadamer’s hermeneutics taught that “there are no rules for interpretation other than the seriousness of an interpretation that continuously questions itself to the point of conviction that one has reached something essential. However, one should never think that one has reached any kind of objective interpretation in which the text, the subject, and the historical period resolve themselves completely.” ((Ibid., 12.))

One of the common critiques of the missional and/or postmodern church is that it gives way to moral relativism and has no core truth on which to stand. Gadamer offers the missional leader a place between the poles of objective and subjective truth where one can hold firmly to conviction while offering authentically open, humble dialogue with the other. Gadamer says,

“I believe I have shown that, in understanding, a ‘subject’ does not stand over against an ‘object’ or a world of objects. Rather something plays back and forth between the human being and that which he or she encounters in the world…. Through an encounter with the other we are lifted above the narrow confines of our own knowledge. A new horizon is disclosed that opens onto what was unknown to us.” ((Hans-Georg Gadamer, Carsten Dutt, and Richard E. Palmer, Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 49.))

Our world is increasingly multi-perspectival and the leaders of the missional church must be able to enter into a Gadamerian style of humble dialogue with the other in order to truly  be lifted to a broader horizon and discern what God is doing in the world.

Missional leadership is the art of praxis. Gadamer says,

“What I taught above all was hermeneutic praxis. Hermeneutics is above all a practice, the art of understanding and of making something understood to someone else.… In it what one has to exercise above all is the ear, the sensitivity for perceiving prior determinations, anticipations, and imprints that reside in concepts.” ((Gadamer and Hahn, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 17.))

Finally, Gadamer’s notion of the fusion of horizons contributes to the conversation around missional pneumatology. The linguisticality of humanity is connected to the pluriform, polycentric nature of the Holy Spirit that Welker proposes. ((Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 228-239.)) It is impossible for the finite human mind to grasp the wholly other, infinite God. Yet, the infinite God is distributed in creation through the spirit and realized through the dialogue that the human has with art, poetry, creation, and the other. ((Walter Lammi, Gadamer and the Question of the Divine, Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy (New York: Continuum, 2008), 16-17.)) The missio dei that is manifest in the polycentric spirit defies singular definition in dogma, but continually draws all of humanity into humble dialogue to encounter the divine. As Gadamer says, “only in the light of the divine can the human be understood.” ((Ibid., 116.))


Dostal, Robert J. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward, 1975.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, and Riccardo Dottori. A Century of Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2003.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Carsten Dutt, and Richard E. Palmer. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary Yale Studies in Hermeneutics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, and Lewis Edwin Hahn. The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer The Library of Living Philosophers. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1997.

Gadamer, Hans Georg. “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection.” Continuum (Chicago, IL) 8, no. 1-2 (1970): 77-95.

Johnson, Patricia Altenbernd. On Gadamer Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Australia; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thompson Learning, 2000.

Lammi, Walter. Gadamer and the Question of the Divine Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Welker, Michael. God the Spirit. 1st English-language ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

The Gospel and Suburban Youth Cultures by Steve Thomason

 The Gospel and Suburban Youth Cultures .pdf copy

The Gospel and Suburban Youth Cultures by Steve Thomason

A Term Paper Presented to Professors Mary Hess and Gary Simpson

Luther Seminary | As a Requirement in Course CL8530 Gospel and Culture

St. Paul, Minnesota | 2012


The general focus of my PhD study is on Spiritual Formation for the missional church in the context of middle-class United States suburbia. I am the Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Grace Lutheran Church (GLC)—an ELCA congregation—in Andover, MN, where I work with all ages trying to create spaces in which people can develop spiritually. My case study for this paper is focused on the high school youth group that I work with and a new curriculum/praxis that I developed for the students this fall called How Do I Fit?

The paper will proceed in three basic movements. The first movement will look through the wide-angle lens of Gospel and Cultures to establish the general theological framework from which I will operate. I will address each topic separately, asking first, What is the Gospel? and then, What is Culture? The second movement will zoom in on three specific theological questions that come directly from my case study: 1. Is it possible to create community among suburban youth, given both the cultural divides that exist between social groups and the seemingly disconnectedness and disembodiedness that characterizes the suburban existence? 2. How much does race—specifically the issues of whiteness—play into spiritual formation in suburban congregations? 3. How does power factor into youth ministry and spiritual formation? The third movement will attempt to synthesize the discussion and provide constructive implications for a suburban missional spirituality.

The entire conversation flows from within the perspective of my specific case study. However, I have decided not to front-load the paper with my thick description of the case study. Rather, I will scatter the description throughout the three movements.

Wide-Angle Lens

What is the Gospel?

Christianity is built upon the answer to this question. And yet, those who call themselves Christians do not agree on the answer. What is the Gospel? All Christians would agree that the Gospel has to do with Jesus. But how does it have to do with him? Is it about the Word becoming incarnate? His moral teachings? His fulfillment of Jewish prophecy? His death? Was it propitiary, atoning, exemplary? Is it his resurrection? Is it his servanthood? His lordship? His exalted place at the right hand of the Father? His imminent return? His place in the Trinity? His sending of the Holy Spirit? All of the above?

Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news [Gospel].”[1] Jesus preached “The Gospel” three years before his death, burial, and resurrection. There was a time in my life—all of my childhood and adolescence, in fact—in which the theological impact of this fact was completely lost on me. How could the Gospel exist, I would have thought, before Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and provided a way for us to go to Heaven?

It is appropriate to share my personal journey at this point for two reasons. First, it provides context for the case study, since I am intricately involved in the study. Who I am has great bearing on how the youth ministry is framed and how I perceive what is happening in it. Second, my personal story crosses through at least three typical theological ghettos of Christian thought and thus serves as an interesting vehicle for exploring various responses to the question, “What is the Gospel?”

I am a stranger in a strange land at GLC. I was not raised Lutheran. My knowledge of God was planted in the soil of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism. The Gospel, in this context, was a very clear-cut transaction that could be explained by the four spiritual laws. 1. God created us. 2. We sinned and deserve eternal punishment. 3. God paid the price for our sin through the death of Jesus. 4. Anyone who receives Jesus (the transactional piece) as personal Lord and Savior will be granted eternal life in Heaven.[2]

My Dad was never legalistic and he seemed to have an authentic, deep, spiritual relationship with God that did not match up with the other men in our fundamentalist world. His passion for a relationship with God that went beyond “winning the lost” and “selling fire insurance” motivated me to seek God beyond the walls of fundamentalism.

God led me on a wild adventure. It began at Moody Bible Institute and quickly branched into the broader world of protestant evangelicalism at Wheaton College. My first adult church experience was a seeker-targeted ministry in a mega church in Las Vegas that tried to blend Willow Creek[3] and Saddle Back[4] into a Christian Church[5] pot. God called me into ministry there and I spent eight years earning a Masters of Divinity degree from Bethel Seminary in their In-Ministry[6] program while serving in adult ministries on the church staff. I discovered that the seeker church model was not really different from my fundamentalist roots. We simply sold tickets to Heaven in a much cooler, “culturally relevant” manner.

God used Dallas Willard, Leonard Sweet, Stanley Grenz, and Alan Roxburgh, among others, to change my ecclesiology and, to some extent, my soteriology, to the point where I could no longer exist within the mega church. We started a house church and I began reading Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr and much of the literature generated by the Emergent Village Group. They gave names to the theological imagination that had been percolating in me over the past several years.

It was Dallas Willard that first exposed me to the realization that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel at the beginning of his ministry. The good news was that the kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus demonstrated with his life and teaching that the kingdom of God is an alternative way of being in the world, right now. The Gospel, in this understanding, could be defined like this: A person can know life—abundant life—in the here and now, not just in the pie-in-the-sky-in-the-great-by-and-by, by following the ways of Jesus. The Kingdom of God is about justice for the poor and the sick and the voiceless. It is about countercultural rhythms of life that cultivate peace and justice in the world.

I liked this vibe. It resonated more with my intuitions about God and the teachings of scripture. However, it left me confused on some of the fundamentals upon which I was raised. What is sin, then? How does justice work with grace?

The people in our house church weren’t ready for the theological shifts that I was experiencing and it shattered our community. Some called me a moral relativist. Others accused me of demon possession. Things ended badly in the house church. I was so beaten and broken that I vowed I would never be a pastor again. I saw myself as a two-time loser in ministry who did not have the “emotional intelligence” to lead people with courage and conviction. I told myself that I was too abstract and not practical enough to accomplish anything of value.

God told me to move to Minnesota and get a PhD. My wife, four children, dog, and I moved to Minnesota with no idea where or how to get a PhD. I tried to make a living as a freelance illustrator/animator. We were waiting in the frozen spaces—literally and figuratively—wondering if God was really leading me, or if I had fallen so far away from Him that I was lost in the cold.

Then my Dad introduced me to a Lutheran pastor at the church down the street. He had attended Wheaton College in the late 70s. He had also spent some time in Baptist and Christian Missionary Alliance contexts before he chose to return to the Lutheran Church where he, for the first time, truly understood God’s grace. God used Pastor Mark to thaw my frozen heart. He invited me to work with GLC as a consultant in Adult Spiritual Formation. I dipped my toe in the water. I was terrified of an institutional church—a Lutheran one, no less. The congregation at GLC received me and my family with warmth and generosity. This allowed me to hear God’s call to ministry once again. I surrendered to God, to Pastor Mark, and to this congregation. I began the process to transfer my ordination into the ELCA.

Then Pastor Mark said, “You know Steve, I think you should pursue a PhD.” Craig Van Gelder had been a consultant for Grace two years earlier and I was hired to implement the plan that he helped them fashion. Pastor Mark introduced me to Craig and that is how I ended up at the CML program at Luther.

While I was moving into ministry at Grace, the youth ministry was falling apart. The youth pastor moved on for reasons never publicly discussed. The people were upset because no one knew the truth. Things were broken. God tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to step into the Youth Pastor role. Now I am associate pastor, trying to lead adult formation, youth formation, and supervising Children’s ministry directors while pursuing a PhD in Missional Ecclesiology.

This journey has shaped my understanding of the Gospel. So, I must ask again, what is the Gospel? It is good news. That much I know. Beyond that it is not as clear-cut as it used to be in my early days. Any human speech about God falls flat and can only be metaphorical in nature. The balance between kataphatic and apophatic theology tends to lean more toward the apophatic for me these days. One metaphor to describe the Gospel goes like this. The creator God is a triune God—a community of loving creativity from which all things are brought into existence—moving in an eternal dance whose rhythm produces life, love, and peaceful coexistence.[7] God creates, animates, sustains, and invites all creation to be in loving community with God and each other. When we move contrary to God’s loving rhythm it creates discord, it disrupts, it destroys, and brings despair. This is Hell, this is darkness, this is isolation and separation, and is that from which we must be saved. God’s incarnation through Jesus of Nazareth brought clarity to the dance and showed us how to live within God’s rhythm, to hear the music once again, and know that we are, and always have been loved. This is Heaven, this is life, this is salvation, this is the good news. The Holy Spirit moves in, through, among, and around us, uniting us all in the music itself.

My current Lutheran experience has reminded me of God’s grace and God’s initiative in that grace. God is love and God loves us. We do not reach out to apprehend God, but God has reached across the void and entered into our brokenness, through the incarnation, to meet us here, to heal us, to make us whole, and to restore all creation to the dance. It is not what I have done or can do, but what God has done and is doing that brings new life. That is good news. That is the Gospel, as I see it, through my current frame, in this moment.

What is Culture?

Our course is named The Gospel and Cultures, not The Gospel and Culture. The emphasis is on the plural. The world is comprised of many cultures. This is a seemingly obvious statement. However, it is difficult, upon closer observation, to articulate what is exactly meant by the term culture. Is it possible to draw hard boundaries around something and call it a culture? Where would we draw that line? Would we draw it around a group of people in a certain place? Would we draw it around an ideology, a set of practices, or an ethnicity?

Tanner on Culture

Kathryn Tanner helps us understand the term culture. She traces its evolution through three basic eras of history. The term was most commonly used in Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to denote a sense of higher cultivated society or sophistication. This understanding was nuanced between France, Germany, and Britain, but, in essence, it carried with it the notion that a person, or a people, could strive to become more cultured through education and self-discipline.[8]

The definition of culture began to change in the early twentieth century and take on a more anthropological sense. The modern anthropologist observed the culture of a people group from a supposedly objective distance. The term culture, in this anthropological sense, was a “group-differentiating, holistic, nonevaluative, and context-relative notion.”[9] A person or a people were no longer cultured, rather, people groups collectively formed a culture that was a self-contained whole, the boundaries of which distinguished it from other cultures. It was meaningless to pass judgment upon, or to evaluate cultural differences, through ethical lenses. Each culture contains its own set of values that are constructed within the cultural boundaries. This anthropologic sense of culture became dominant in the twentieth century and heavily influenced many fields of study. It influenced theological inquiry in that Christianity, Biblicial studies, and the notion of Christian culture were understood through the lens of cultural relativity, conveniently dividing Christianity into separate spaces of geography and time.

Tanner deconstructs the modern, anthropological sense of culture and introduces the current, post-modern reconstruction of the term. The need within the modern anthropological sense for culture to be a consistent whole revealed more the need of the anthropologist to explain culture than an authentic description of the practice of culture.[10] Culture, for the postmodern anthropologist, “forms the basis for conflict as much as it forms the basis for shared beliefs and sentiments. Whether or not culture is a common focus of agreement, culture binds people together as a common focus for engagement.”[11]

Simply put, culture is messy. There are still large groups of people that, at the surface, may appear to be cultures as understood by the modern anthropological sense, but they have been “decentered or reinscribed within a more primary attention to historical processes.”[12] Culture is formed by external and internal engagement and conflict. One culture engages another culture—sometimes overlapping, sometimes resisting—while each culture is simultaneously struggling internally as the members of that culture vie for power and sense-making of the current moment. There is no longer the notion of holistic, homogeneous cultures existing in self-contained spaces. The postmodern anthropocentric notion of culture sees the world as a mixture of cultures continually intersecting and evolving in a pluriform, polycentric interplay of engagement and conflict.

Culture in Suburban Youth

The modern anthropologist might look at the youth of GLC, draw a hard circle around them, and place the homogenous cultural label of “white, middle-class suburbanites” to it. This may have some merit if one were to observe this group from a global perspective, or even a regional perspective. The students may be white, but within the context of the suburbs, this group is anything but homogenous. Tanner’s description of culture as a mixture of cultures continually intersecting and evolving in a pluriform, polycentric interplay of engagement and conflict is highly descriptive of suburban youth. The youth group at GLC is constituted by two strata of cultural division. The first is that of particular schools. The second is that of cliques and/or social groups within each particular school.

A Thick Description of The Youth Group

Framing the Ministry Context

The youth ministry at GLC was very broken when I stepped into it. There has never been a truly dynamic youth ministry at GLC in all of its forty-two years of existence. GLC is the typical Lutheran church in which families see Confirmation as the end goal. We have over one hundred students in our catechism program (which I also lead), but there is a sharp drop-off after that. When the previous youth pastor left, the congregation was shocked and hurt. Most of the youth had disengaged from him because they thought he played favorites. Those families that were part of his alleged favorite group were angry when he moved on.

These were the waters I entered during the fall of 2010. The emotional and organizational temperature was one degree above freezing. The only thing I had going for me was that people had responded very positively to my adult presence in both preaching and adult classes. The early months of my interaction with the high school youth were incredibly painful. The students—the handful that even risked, or were forced to attend—were understandably skeptical of me. We have spent the past two years trying to rebuild this ministry.

Describing the Students

The youth at GLC are suburbanites. GLC is located at the corner of Round Lake Boulevard and Bunker Lake Boulevard in Andover, MN, which is just north of Highway 10, thirty miles Northwest of downtown Minneapolis. This intersection sees more than 40,000 cars per day drive through it. It sits at the junction of four large suburban communities: Andover, Coon Rapids, Anoka, and Ramsey.

The students come from six different high schools: Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Coon Rapids, Elk River, and St. Francis. All of the students come from white, middle to upper middle class families. The only non-Caucasian students—two African American, two Asian, and one Central American—live with white families through adoption.

One word can best describe most of these students: busy. The vast majority of them are involved in a minimum of two simultaneous extra-curricular activities—sports, music, theater, etc. Many of them live in divided custody situations and spend a great deal of time alternating between family systems. Between eight-hour school days, home work, practice, and a social life, there is very little time left in their weeks. Most of the families—and so their high school children—view church as an optional activity on the weekend when they are not going to the cabin, in a tournament, opening hunting/fishing season, or watching the big game. The main motivation for most of the Freshmen to engage in the OYF year[13] is to successfully fulfill the obligations necessary to be confirmed, thus concluding their religious transaction with God. This is not true for all the students, but I can safely say it is true for at least half of them.

The upperclassmen are a different story. They are no longer obligated to come. It is still unclear to me why many of them come. Some may still feel pressure from their families to participate. However, the fact that the upperclassmen are participating does seem to be a sign of some internal motivation and desire to grow spiritually. The entire group is currently made up of approximately 60% freshmen and 40% upperclassmen with a total of 60 participating at some level. Most of them have minimal Bible knowledge and little vocabulary for talking about God in everyday spaces. They could easily be characterized as functioning within the framework of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.[14]

Wrestling with Culture

The first group meeting of this fall was focused on Tanner’s concept of cultures (of course, the students had no idea I was referencing Tanner). I divided the large group into clusters of small conversation groups and asked them to read Galatians 3:25–28 (NRSV)

But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (emphasis mine)

I then asked them to focus on the emphasized text and create a poster that would represent what this might look like in their high school. A rich and fruitful conversation ensued. Most of them identified the typical cliques found in high school—jocks, band, choir, geeks, nerds, emos, druggies, etc.—and placed them in various groupings of adversarial couplets.

What is culture in the context of my case study? Culture is a swirling mass of cultures interacting within cultures. Sometimes they form momentary solid masses with rigid boundaries that smash into other cultures —like a group of belligerent wrestlers who have decided to bully a gay kid. Sometimes they are incredibly porous and two or three groups can intermingle as several members of each group find themselves functioning comfortably within each of the various cultural groups.

If we zoom in tightly we can observe that the engagement and conflict that Tanner uses to describe culture happens within each individual member of each culture.  Each individual has conflicting internal voices that vie for power over personal identity and proper behavior in the world. When we zoom out and observe these internally conflicted individuals interacting with others within their own culture we see that, even within what might be considered an homogenous cultural group, e.g. the jocks, there is a struggle over who is in charge and what it means to be a jock. The rules shift and change as different individuals perform. When we zoom further out and observe the different cultures of the high school interacting, we see the struggle for who will control the larger cultural climate of the school. Will the various groups peacefully co-exist, separate but equal? Or, will one group seek dominance through bullying and intimidation? More than likely, the school culture will shift between these two modes throughout the course of a school year, depending upon who wins dominance within each group at any given time.

When we take that turbulent, polymorphous cultural milieu, multiply it by six schools, and then mash it together in this thing called a youth group, it becomes a cultural conundrum. What does it mean to be “one in Christ” in all of that? How do you communicate Christian unity to high school students who are just now emerging into, what Robert Kegan calls, a third order of consciousness?[15] This sets the stage for our overarching question: How does the Gospel intersect with these cultures?

Close-Ups: Engaging Three Specific Theological Questions

Is it possible to create community among suburban youth, given both the cultural divides that exist between social groups and the seemingly disconnected, disembodiedness that characterizes the suburban existence?

There are two assumptions latent within this question. The first assumes that there are cultural divides within the youth group. I have already addressed this assumption in the section above. The second assumption requires further exploration. I am becoming increasingly aware of a systemic condition of disembodied living in suburban spaces.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to expound deeply on this point, but a brief interaction with Willie Jennings’ concept of displacement may prove helpful.[16] Jennings argues that European Christianity underwent a theological evolution, and distortion, during the late Middle Ages that gave rise to the theological justification for the colonization of most of the planet and the displacement of countless indigenous people groups. This evolution began with a supersessionist interpretation of the Christian Scriptures in which God’s election of the nation of Israel was dislodged from time and space and reasserted onto the white, European ideal of civilization. Human identity was reconfigured into a universal ideal centered on whiteness as the standard of evaluation. It placed whiteness at the top of the scale (being mostly good, agency, godly, and thus Christian) and black at the bottom of the scale (being mostly debase, patiency, ungodly, and thus heathen). Everything—human beings, animals, land—was reduced to being a commodity to be used and exchanged by the agency of the autonomous white male.

The new worlds were transformed into land—raw, untamed land. And the European vision saw these new lands as a system of potentialities, a mass of undeveloped, underdeveloped, unused, underutilized, misunderstood, not fully understood potentialities. Everything—from peoples and their bodies to plants and animals, from the ground and the sky—was subject to change, subjects for change, subjected to change.[17]

With the emergence of whiteness, identity was calibrated through possession of, not possession by, specific land. All peoples do make claims on their land. But the point here is that racial agency and especially whiteness rendered unintelligible and unpersuasive any narratives of the collective self that bound identity to geography, to earth, to water, trees, and animals. People would henceforth (and forever) carry their identities on their bodies, without remainder. From the beginning of the colonialist moment, being white placed one at the center of the symbolic and real reordering of space. In a real sense, whiteness comes into being as a form of landscape with all its facilitating realities.[18]

Simply put, white Europeans understood white European culture to be: 1) Synonymous with Christianity, 2) Detached from particular time and space, 3) Transferable to any and all specific locations of time and space. The result of this Christian imagination of human identity and land led the white European colonist to believe that he was a free agent in the universe, able to take over new land, parcel it into private sections, and re-create that land into anything that he wanted it to be.

Each European man was the autonomous king of his private domain. This domain was marked off by rigid boundaries of space, called private property, in which he was free to be and do whatever he pleased, apart from neighbor. This supposed freedom of individual sovereignty is what fueled the colonization of North America, the formation of the United States, the Westward Expansion into the “untamed Frontier,” the displacement of the Native Americans, and the parceling up of land into pieces of private property.

This autonomous ideal was further fueled—both metaphorically and figuratively—by the invention of the automobile in the twentieth century. The automobile allowed the autonomous white self to move independently through space and find so-called unclaimed land further and further away from the other.[19] This is how and why the suburbs were formed. Suburban neighborhoods are comprised of streets lined with autonomous kingdoms standing in a row. They are close in physical proximity, but existentially separated by rigid boundaries of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and self-preservation. The autonomous king moves through space and time in his automobile, flying past the neighbor at blurring speeds, on his way to another location in which his professional identity is manifest. That professional identity is, in itself, a commodity which can be traded and moved interchangeably throughout the vast landscape of white economic power structures.

The suburbanite seeks economic and social ascendency, and thus is ready to relocate to new spaces in pursuit of that goal. When a new job opportunity arises, he simply takes his self-contained kingdom, and all human beings and animals within his domain, out of one neutral plot of land and relocates it in another neutral plot of land, regardless of how far away this new place may be.

This is what I mean by disembodied existence. The suburbanite operates deeply within this Christian Imagination of autonomy and commodification. We—speaking now as a suburbanite—don’t live in a place. We live within the landscape of our own lives and ambitions, regardless of the others within physical proximity. Neighbors are non-essential components of the suburban existence. They are optional diversions to the autonomous endeavor. Each kingdom is self-sufficient with ample access to water, power, sewage, and telecommunications that are accessed from faceless utility companies.

What does this have to do with the youth group and the formation of spiritual community? Everything. The suburbanite youth breathes this air. They are the inheritors of the white Christian Imagination. This has two negative effects that are extremely difficult to negate. These two effects are the polarized outcome of the same problem. On the one hand, suburbanite youth fully embody the white, privileged, autonomous ideal, of this Christian imagination. Success and self-fulfillment are simply viewed as their inevitable, inalienable rights. Christianity, if their family still considers the church relevant at any level, is simply another commodity to be utilized toward the achievement of personal goals. Church is used when it is convenient—for baptism, confirmation, weddings, funerals, and in times of feeling down. Otherwise, it can be rendered secondary to the pursuit of other self-fulfilling pursuits, e.g. sports, entertainment, academic achievement.

On the other hand, there are those youth who are becoming increasingly aware of the hypocrisy and damaging effects of white colonization on the planet. The popular culture is speaking more and more of global responsibility, diversity, and the need to bring justice to these issues. However, the popular culture is also aware that European Christianity is highly culpable in these ecological, economic, and global sins. This realization is pushing more and more young people away from institutional religion and into the “none” zone.[20] The irony of this phenomenon is that the local church has become a perceived enemy of youth who are seeking an authentically spiritual experience. In other words, the type of student that a youth pastor dreams of working with—one who longs to know deeper things and be formed spiritually—is inoculated against approaching the church.

Is there an answer to my question? Can community be formed? I have attempted to name the factors that make it difficult, but are there solutions? I will attempt to address that in my final section.

How much does race—specifically the issues of whiteness—play into spiritual formation in suburban congregations?

This question is deeply connected to the previous question. Willie Jennings’ argument for the whiteness of Christianity has deep implications for the suburban church. Suburbia is defined by whiteness. I agree with Mary Hess that “racism is a central determining characteristic of life in the United States. If we are to confront it adequately, we white people need to confront our own formation as “white” in a raced society.”[21]

The early development of modern, U.S. suburbia that happened in the late 1950s and 1960s was referred to as “white flight.” The suburban ideal was thoroughly enmeshed with Jennings proposal of the whiteness scale and upward mobility toward the Aristotelian ideal of self-actualization.[22] Rich, white people live in the suburbs. The richer—and whiter—one is, the further away from the city one lives and the more distance there is between one’s neighbors.

White suburban Christians don’t like to admit this, but it is true. Elizabeth Tisdell says,

Often people in North America who are white or who were socialized within the Christian tradition have little sense of their own culture. Perhaps when one is representative of the dominant culture, it is difficult to have a sense of where that culture is. As many have recently discussed in considerations of race in adult education, whiteness is the primary invisible norm, the invisible standard that people are often measured against. To be fully conscious of what is so pervasive that it is almost invisible is difficult, just as fish probably have little or no consciousness of water. But if fish were not in water, they probably would very quickly have a sense of what water is.[23]

She identifies a model of cultural identity for those who have begun to understand whiteness as a system of privilege that I would argue is an essential component to spiritual formation in white, suburban churches. The white Christian moves through three phases. 1. She experiences a disorienting dilemma, such as having a personal relationship with a person of color or a member of a marginalized group in which the imbalance of power and privilege becomes painfully apparent. 2. She begins to explore the assumptions that she has unconsciously absorbed.[24] 3. She begins to explore what it means to be an ally to people of color or other non-dominant groups.[25] Mary Hess also suggests the adoption of Katie Cannon’s “Dance of Redemption” as a formational practice to help white people confront core issues of race.[26]

White, suburban youth groups must be given opportunities to experience these phases of awareness and formation. However, extreme caution must be used in the experiences and spaces created for this to happen. Often times youth leaders take youth groups on missions trips in order to encounter the “other.” Or, the church has special events in which the congregation invests in helping the poor, the homeless, and those “less fortunate.” It is absolutely necessary for the local congregation to be involved in these issues; yet, many times the ways in which these activities are framed actually perpetuate whiteness in the Christian identity. We take white Christian youth to minister to “them” who are different and—invisibly insinuated—lower than “us.” This “we-must-help-them” frame tends to be unidirectional and flows in a top-down direction.

If the suburban youth group is going to wrestle with white privilege—which I believe is crucial to authentic spiritual formation—then these methodologies must change. We need to move away from a Modern missions mentality of “cross-cultural” encounters, in which the white dominant culture brings truth and hope to the other. We need to move toward an “inter-cultural” exchange, in which suburban students get to participate with the other in a posture of learning and mutual service. This type of exchange would have deeper and longer-lasting impact if it were done locally within segregated groups in the metro-area.

The Issue of Power in Leadership

I raise the issue of power because I have made an interesting observation this fall. I honestly thought that this paper would be more about the use of digital social media as a democratizing, liberating tool for media among youth. I have found this to not be the case. The How Do I Fit curriculum was built on a digital platform. Everything is online. We have a website, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, and a closed Facebook group for online discussion. I personally use Facebook, Twitter, and blog regularly. I thought it would be a fabulous digital experience. I was wrong.

The best way to describe the experience is to draw an analogy. It was as if I spent weeks preparing the perfect banquet. I had chosen all the dishes. I had prepared the food, set the table, sent out the invitations, and built up great anticipation with visions of vibrant conversation taking place around the perfect meal. The day of the banquet came, I opened the doors and three people slowly walked in and timidly sat at the table. I was disappointed, to say the least. So, what happened?

I believe I ran into a power problem. Digital social media is about the free-flowing, grass-roots, bottom-up social interaction of peers. The problem with my plan is that I set the table. It doesn’t matter how digitally savvy it may be, it is still a table set for the students, not a table constructed by the students.

Let me use another analogy. It is as if I saw a group of students standing on the corner, having a really good time together: laughing, talking, and connecting. I barge into the group and start trying to “talk the lingo” and “fit in.” What would happen in that moment? The students would probably shut down, immediately. I am not a student. I am not cool in the way that they understand their peers to be cool. I am a middle-aged adult who bears the title “Pastor” before my name. That makes me, to use Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s term, the symbol of kyriarchal power that is the “other.”[27] They may respect me, and think I’m cool, but it will always be followed by the disclaimer, “for an old guy.”

How, then, can I utilize my kyriarchal power to create space in which spiritual formation and authentic social interaction—both in physical and digital spaces—can take place? Schüssler Fiorenza’s discussion regarding the democratizing of biblical studies might prove helpful. She traces the history of biblical studies through three paradigms: 1) religious-theological-scriptural, 2) critical-scientific-modern, 3) cultural-hermeneutic-postmodern. Each of these paradigms, she argues, are hegemonic and perpetuate a kyriarchal and malestream culture. The typical Christian education program of the modern Western, suburban congregation would generally fall under one of these paradigms, most often under paradigm one or two. This pedagogy places the Pastor at the top of the power structure as the representative of universal, biblical truth that must be transmitted down to the student, as empty recipients.

Fiorenza proposes a fourth paradigm which is emancipatory-radical-democratic. This paradigm

needs to understand biblical texts as rhetorical discourse that are to be investigated in terms of their persuasive power and argumentative functions in particular historical and cultural situations and constellations of power.[28]

The fourth paradigm proposes

a critical pedagogy for transforming Western malestream epistemological frameworks, individualistic apolitical practices, and sociopolitical relations of cultural colonization. By analyzing the Bible’s kyriocentric power of persuasion, an emancipatory pedagogy seeks to foster biblical interpretation as a critical emancipative praxis of struggle against all forms of domination.[29]

I must pause for a moment at this point. My discussion of power and pedagogy  within a youth ministry must come into conversation with theories of human development and pedagogical models. It is beyond the scope of this paper to delve into that vast conversation. I simply want to point out the fact that Fiorenza’s arguments assume an adult learning space. Moreover, she assumes a highly educated and biblically literate learning space in which the graduate students are biblically literate—meaning they have been trained in the content of scripture. Their training, however, has been within hegemonic systems that have distorted the message and perpetuated kyriarchal systems.

How does this translate to the suburbanite youth who has little-to-no biblical knowledge and is not yet an adult learner? How does the teacher/youth leader invite students into an emancipatory space when the student does not feel oppressed; when, in fact, the student operates within white privilege and feels that the scripture is irrelevant?

The question of power began with an observation regarding my use of digital spaces and the student’s lack of interest in using those spaces. I created these spaces with a basic assumption that the world of information is flattening and the younger generation is increasingly engaged in communal meaning-making as they collaborate in digital spaces. I wonder if this is true for the suburbanite youth. Most of the conversations regarding digital space and democratizion of knowledge seems to be happening among a generation that has transitioned from an older, more analogical and lexical form of knowledge to a more digital and hyper-textual form of knowledge. This group of people has come from a deep place of tradition and is beginning to see the broader world of emancipatory-radical-democracy. In this new world they can bring their traditions into conversation with other traditions and seek inter-textual relatedness.

How does this connect with the younger generations who have been raised in a hypertext reality? Most students have no grounding in a single tradition. The Mashup Religion that McClure notices is the normal mode of being.[30] Students have been raised in a world where they can surf hundreds of channels, sample songs and remix them on their computers and tablets, and pick and choose from a wide assortment of worldviews in which they navigate at school and in media everyday. Spiritual seekers find as much truth in music and fan websites as they do in church youth groups. Students who have been raised in this free-flowing culture need a place to anchor. McClure says that the place of the local congregation is to offer the consumer of Mashup Religion a place to slow down and to deepen in traditions.

What does all this mean for me in my use of power with the youth group? These students need to be grounded in scripture. Yet, the fact that they have no engrained preconception of scripture in the kyriarchical models of Fiorenza’s first three paradigms, gives me an opportunity to create a new space. I stand at the transitional space for these students. They are moving from childhood to adulthood. They are moving from dependence to independence. I am still an authority figure and they still need authoritative voices in their lives. However, I can invite them into an exploration of scripture in which they can see it, not as a disembodied voice of universal truth that has been translated into strict rules, but as an authentic, embodied space where real people wrestle with a real God in real spaces.

Mary Hess’ model would prove helpful in a move toward this goal. Hess suggests a pedagogy in which the learners are invited to gather around the “script”—the biblical witness—as a collaborative cast of characters learning a play. The cast, under the guidance of a director (the leader/teacher/youth leader), moves through four phases of learning: learning the script, practicing the script, performing the script, and then improvising.[31]

If I create a space in which my power simply invites and frames conversations in which students are encouraged to ask questions and feel freedom to fail and wrestle, then perhaps the DNA of their scriptural knowledge will help form an emanicipatory-radical-democratic way of being that will direct their spiritual formation into adulthood.

Missional Implications

I have learned a great deal about myself, youth ministry, spiritual formation in the suburbs, and Gospel and Cultures through this case study. The Gospel is the good news that the Triune God creates, sustains, and invites us into eternally deepening relationships with God and others through the exemplary and atoning life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel, or Christian Identity, as Tanner states, is not so much about the content of the Gospel as it is about the style with which Christians pursue it. The Gospel exists within the inter-cultural spaces of engagement. God calls the high school students in this youth group into an ever-deepening awareness of the following engagements. We might call this a process of tending to the gaps that divide cultures.

Here I suggest three specific gaps that must be tended if the youth I work with are to experience spiritual formation in a missional imagination:

1. The Gap between the students and their knowledge of scripture. They must engage the Gospel as it is revealed in the scriptural witness. Students must be allowed space to encounter God through the scriptures in a collaborative and experiential space.

I had an amazing experience with the students three weeks ago in this regard. We decided to engage in lectio divina as a group. We read Isaiah 6:1-8 three times. The first time I read it slowly to allow the students to find definitions of terms that might be unfamiliar. They clarified the terms. We then read one line at a time. Each person read a line and we circled around the room, reading slowly as we went. We paused and allowed time to quietly meditate. I then invited everyone to read a word or phrase that God was using to speak to them. They jumped around throughout the passage in a non-linear fashion. I was amazed at how intensely they were engaged in the process. We continued speaking the words passionately for several minutes. When I felt we were winding down I invited everyone to speak the words “holy, holy, holy” in unison. We then sang the song “I See the Lord.” It was a powerful time of worship. Several students shared with me later that the scripture had never been so clear to them before this experience. It reinforced to me both the power of the scripture as a vehicle for God’s voice, and the power of collaborative space that is open to free movement.

2. The Gap of Race. Students must engage the issue of white privilege. Suburban students must be given opportunities for disruptive encounters with privilege and its inhibition of the Gospel. This is crucial to breaking the hegemony of white Christianity and the breaking open of what it truly means to be “one in Christ.”

3.  The Gap of Body and Place. Students must engage the disembodied suburban existence and the need for spiritual community. The suburban student needs to understand that s/he is not an autonomous self, but is an interconnected part of the entire universe. Each individual is a unique part of the greater whole and has been given gifts and talents that are designed to contribute to the greater good of the whole. The Gospel and the process of spiritual formation is learning that we are connected to each other, and it is only when we learn to love each other as Christ loved us, that we will begin to experience the reign of God’s peace on earth. This process begins by tending the gaps between jocks and nerds, between Cardinals and Huskies, between rich and poor, between Christian and Muslim. We must tend these gaps until we all realize that our small youth group is one part of this interconnected community of Anoka county, the Metro Area, Minnesota, the United States, and the planet.

My job is to use my power as Christ used his. I am to call students to join our group as we strive to follow Jesus. I must model humility and service, encourage them to learn collaboratively, and empower them to improvise as they move in the Spirit of God. The How Do I Fit curriculum is not great. I think it focuses too much on the individual self, and I can see my modernistic tendencies flaring up in its design. When I redesign it, I think I will create more emphasis on the engagement points listed above and allow more space for the students to set their own digital table as they see fit.




Hess, Mary E. Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind Communication, Culture, and Religion Series. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Kegan, Robert. In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

McClure, John S. Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Tisdell, Elizabeth J. Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Van Gelder, Craig. “Effects of Auto-Mobility on Church Life and Culture.” Word & World 28, no. 3 (2008): 237-249.



The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mk 1:15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] The implication here is that all others will be lost in Hell and damnation forever. The kinder ones of us didn’t like to emphasize this point. Others loved to shove it down the throat of our “lost” friends.

[3] This is a mega-church in the suburbs of Chicago that is led by senior pastor Bill Hybels. The Willow Creek model is known as a non-denominational, “seeker-targeted” model in which the weekly Sunday services are tailored to spiritual seekers and fashioned in “culturally relevant” media for the purpose of communicating the Gospel and connecting it to everyday, suburban lifestyles.

[4] This is another mega-church in Southern California that is led by senior pastor Rick Warren. Saddle Back is built upon a “Purpose-Driven” model in which spiritual seekers are led through a linear plan of spiritual growth.

[5] Here I am referring to the specific movement called the Christian Church. It is one of three splinter groups from the original Stone-Campbell movement in Kentucky that followed the Civil War. It is also known as the Restoration movement. It was a reformation movement that moved away from the Presbyterian church. The church I served in was moving from a Christian Church background to a blend of Willow Creek and Saddle Back.

[6] This is a program that allows the student to stay working full-time in ministry while pursuing an education in distance and contextualized learning formats.

[7] Here I am drawing heavily upon Zizoulas’ notion of “relational ontology.” We are formed by the relationality of the persons of the Trinity into a relationally constituted existence. We cannot exist in isolation, but rely upon the interdependence we experience with the universe—air, water, sunlight, gravity, intergender procreation, etc.—and the emotional/physical/rational/spiritual/relational interdepence with other human beings for our very survival.

[8] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

[9] Ibid.,  24.

[10] Ibid.,  42.

[11] Ibid.,  57.

[12] Ibid.,  56.

[13] We set aside the freshman year of high school as a time-between-times for students. They are finished with the formal catechism, but are not automatically confirmed as if it were a graduation from catechism. The students are paired with an adult mentor and encouraged to have a year-long dialogue with the mentor to, hopefully, internalize what they learned in catechism and be able to authentically own their faith at Confirmation. This Own Your Faith (OYF) process (which I inherited) has created another layer of obligatory spiritual commodification in which many students become resistant attenders to our high school youth group, thus complexifying the spiritual formation process.

[14] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[15] It is beyond the scope of this paper to fold Kegan’s theory into the conversation. However, it is important to note that human development is an important factor to keep in mind when dealing with youth and spiritual formation. It is only in adolescence that the human being can begin to understand that they have a place within a single cultural system. They are generally blind to the cultural system itself as just one system among many systems. Therefore, they lean toward seeing the “other” culture as wrong and confusing, rather than something to be embraced. Paul’s ideal of “one in Christ” may be developmentally out of reach for the suburban youth during the period of adolescence. This is a topic worth further exploration. Robert Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[16] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[17] Ibid.,  43.

[18] Ibid.,  59.

[19] Craig Van Gelder, “Effects of Auto-Mobility on Church Life and Culture,” Word & World 28, no. 3 (2008): 241.

[20] http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/174127941.html (accessed December 3, 2012)

[21] Mary E. Hess, Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind, Communication, Culture, and Religion Series (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 108.

[22] Thanks to Gary Simpson’s lecture on Aristotle’s thought as it relates to Jenning’s arguments. A graphic representation of this lecture can be found at http://www.deepintheburbs.com/willie-jennings-the-christian-imagination/ (accessed December 3, 2012)

[23] Elizabeth J. Tisdell, Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education, The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 169.

[24] I would argue that this is why Willie Jenning’s work is crucial for suburban spirituality.

[25] Tisdell, 170-171.

[26] Hess, 108-110.

[27] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).

[28] Ibid.,  91.

[29] Ibid.,  121.

[30] John S. McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

[31] Hess, 9-14.

A Missional Imagination for ELCA Polity by Steve Thomason

A Missional Imagination for ELCA Polity (pdf version)

Framing a Missional Polity for the ELCA by Steve Thomason

A Term Paper Presented to Dr. Craig Van Gelder | Luther Seminary

As a Requirement in Course LD8525 Congregational Leadership |St. Paul, Minnesota | 2011


The purpose of this paper is to focus on the current polity of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and make suggestions for how the ELCA could modify its polity to embody a missional ecclesiology. Any discussion of this type is a hermeneutical endeavor and requires the proper framing of horizons before any fruitful interaction can take place. I will first briefly trace the historical roots of the ELCA from Martin Luther to the present and identify how this historical narrative has framed its ecclesiological horizon. I will then analyze the current structure of the ELCA as articulated in its constitution and identify significant incongruities between this formal structure and the reality of its informal structure and struggles. I will then briefly articulate the emerging missional ecclesiology in order to bring it into conversation with the ELCA. Finally, I will make some suggestions as to how the ELCA could address its incongruities and make polity changes that would align it within a missional ecclesiology.

Part One: Framing the Historical Context for the ELCA

Ground Zero: Luther on Polity

The Lutheran Church was forged in the crucible of the early 16th century when the Pope occupied the central seat of power in all of European Christendom. The Roman magesterium had dominated European culture for nearly 1,000 years, having replaced the Roman Empire circa 500 B.C.E. as the center of civil and religious power. Medieval cosmology[1] led the Western world to hold self-evident that God had ordained a top-down hierarchy of command and control for all political/religious structures. The power structure flowed along the following path. First, God was supreme at the top of the order. Second, God mediated his grace through the church to the world. Third, the human representative of God on earth was the Pope. Fourth, his authority was dispersed through a hierarchical chain of command through the archbishops, bishops, and local priesthood. This hierarchical structure is also known as the episcopacy. The issue of episcopacy will become an important theme in the discussion of the ELCA.

Martin Luther was a common German priest who was willing to point out an observation about centralized power. Authority that is focused entirely on one person grants tremendous power to that person. When that power is connected to the office of the keys and every person’s eternal destiny is ultimately held within that single set of human hands, then that power borders on absolute. Lord Acton captured this observation many years later in his now famous quote, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2] This strong pillar of Roman magisterial power cast a dark shadow of corruption across the European landscape in the first decades of the 16th century. It was out of this shadow—or perhaps, against this shadow—that Martin Luther stood. Luther sought to dismantle the powerful control the Pope and his bishops had over the local church.

We must pause at this point and ask an important question regarding core Lutheran polity. What was Martin Luther’s attitude toward church structure and power? How did he perceive the role of the bishop in the church? In his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he says,

for whoever has come out the waters of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope although, of course, it is not seemly that just anybody should exercise such office…without the authority and consent of the community.[3]

The Augsburg Confession addressed the issue in two places. First, Article VII states, “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”[4]

Second, Article XXVIII says,

it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church[5]…76] Peter,1 Pet.5,3,forbids bishops to be lords, and to rule over the churches. 77] It is not our design now to wrest the government from the bishops, but this one thing is asked, namely, that they allow the Gospel to be purely taught, and that they relax some few observances which 78] cannot be kept without sin. But if they make no concession, it is for them to see how they shall give account to God for furnishing, by their obstinacy, a cause for schism.[6]

It is important to note that Lutheran doctrine was formed in a time and place where 1) everyone was Christian, 2) the bishops held both political and religious power equal to the civil officials and royalty.

Luther made two radical reforms in this regard. First, he severed the powers of church and state. Second, he limited the authority of the bishop to issues of the Gospel.

This move was both radical for its time and also vague and open enough to interpretation that it has been problematic for the church ever since. Luther upheld two seemingly opposite positions: the priesthood of all believers and the necessity of ordained clergy. No clearer direction was given to the church regarding polity. The question still remains as to who holds the power in the church. Is it the bishop or the congregation?

Early Factions of Lutheran Polity

Lutheranism would continue to struggle with polity up to the present time. Two basic forms of polity would emerge over the next 500 years. One vein of Lutheranism followed an episcopal structure. This form of Lutheranism was dominant in the Scandinavian churches. The Lutheran Confession of Faith was adopted by the royalty of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland and established as the state church. Scandanavians have been Lutherans by birth ever since. The boundaries between the Episcopal Lutherans were drawn between nationalities and ethnicity. This would prove to be a problem as the churches later immigrated to the United States and were forced to become neighbors.

The other vein of Lutheranism took on a congregational form of polity in which the priesthood of all believers was upheld as the higher standard. Clergy was still ordained, but their function was to simply administer the sacraments and care for the flock. The laity assisted in ministry and the congregation held power to make decisions for the local church. Divisions and boundaries in this vein of Lutheranism were also formed around ethnic lines, but they were also around doctrinal issues.

Moving to America

Lutherans started moving to North America over the next 300 years and things began to change. Each group that moved to North America brought with it more than just a church. It brought an ethnic heritage, latent with linguistic, nationalistic, and cultural mores that distinguished it from all other Lutherans. These individual churches were like small tributaries of cultural/ecclesial water that began to flow toward the basin of a collective unity in the American Church which would become the ELCA.

The path to the ELCA was not smooth or immediate. These small tributaries had to pass through an intermediate stage before they arrived as one church. The Lutheran churches in Europe were formed around geo-political lines. The Swedes didn’t like the Norse, and the Danish didn’t like the Germans, and so on. When the Lutherans immigrated to the United States, suddenly Swedish Lutherans found themselves living among Norwegian and German Lutherans. It was not uncommon to find a Swedish, Norwegian, and German Lutheran church in the same small, Midwestern town.

Subsequent generations began to lose the old ties to the mother country. Everyone spoke English and the rivalry of the nations faded into history. The turn of the 20th century and two world wars forced the previously rival churches to band together and flow into three tributaries of American Lutheranism.

The Three Tributaries Prior to the ELCA

We will now look specifically at the three major Lutheran Churches that formed during the 1960s and 70s and later came together to form the ELCA. These churches are: The Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC).

The Lutheran Church in America

The LCA was formed in 1962 by the combination of the United Lutheran Churches in America (ULCA), the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (Suomi Synod), the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (of Danish heritage), and the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church (of Swedish heritage). Theologically, the LCA was liturgical, high-church, and considered the most liberal of American Lutheran Churches. It also had the most Episcopal polity of all the Lutheran churches. This centralized, top-down approach to polity came from the fact that most of the churches that fed into the LCA historically came from the state church in Europe.[7]

The American Lutheran Church

The ALC was formed in 1962 by the merger of the old American Lutheran Church (a predominantly German amalgamation formed in 1930), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (formed in 1917 and also known as the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America), and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (founded in 1896 and also known as the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church). The churches that formed the ALC were heavily influenced by pietism and practiced a predominantly low-church, congregational polity. They were theologically conservative and maintained a stance of Biblical inerrancy into the 20th century.[8]

The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches

In contrast to the LCA and the ALC, the AELC was born from a split in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) rather than the merger of smaller diverse churches. In the mid 1970s, a controversy arose among the LCMS regarding the issue of biblical inerrancy. The tension in the church was heightened when many faculty and students walked out of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri to form the Seminex (Seminary in Exile). Eventually those associated with the more moderate group that was not satisfied with the conservative turn within the LCMS officially withdrew from the church and formed the AELC in 1976.[9]

A Decade of Deliberation, Dissension, and Collaboration

The conversation about structural unity in the American Lutheran church started between the LCA and the ALC in the mid-1970s. The LCMS was initially involved, but quickly withdrew from the conversation. Things may have progressed more quickly toward unification, but the sudden formation of the AELC and its inclusion in the conversation slowed the process down. The Committee on Lutheran Unity (CLU) met from 1979—1982 to decide whether the merger should happen. It held representatives from the LCA, ALC, and AELC. The three churches made the commitment to merge and formed the Committee for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC) in 1982 to work out the details.

How do you blend churches that approach the issue of polity from radically different perspectives? The ALC was nervous about giving up its autonomy and freedom within its congregational polity. The LCA was nervous about allowing the low-church, potentially anti-liturgists and/or pietists, from desecrating their sacred forms and usurping the authority of the bishops. The AELC was afraid that it would be swallowed up and lost in the merger. Six years of painful struggle, deliberation, dissension, and collaboration led to the drafting of the constitution of the ELCA. The church officially began on January 1, 1988.

Part Two: The Current Polity of the ELCA and the Incongruities Between its Formal and Informal Structure

The Polity as it is Stated in the Constitution

The ELCA is comprised of nearly 5,000,000 people, 10,500 congregations, and 65 synods, all unified in a churchwide organization.[10] It claims to be one church in three expressions—the congregations, the synods, and the churchwide organization (see fig. 1[11]).

Article 3.02, under the chapter Nature of the Church, states,

The Church exists both as an inclusive fellowship and as local congregations gathered for worship and Christian service. Congregations find their fulfillment in the universal community of the Church, and the universal Church exists in and through congregations. This church, therefore, derives its character and powers both from the sanction and representation of its congregations and from its inherent nature as an expression of the broader fellowship of the faithful. In length, it acknowledges itself to be in the historic continuity of the communion of saints; in breadth, it expresses the fellowship of believers and congregations in our day.[12]

ELCAStructureThe idea of three expressions of the church is a unique concept. It seems to represent a flat, egalitarian structure. It has three distinct parts that are each the church, and yet, no one part is the church in and of itself apart from the whole.

Article 5.01 begins to articulate the specifics of this interdependent relationship. Parts c and d read,

c.   The congregations, synods, and churchwide organization of this church are interdependent partners sharing responsibly in God’s mission. In an interdependent relationship primary responsibility for particular functions will vary between the partners. Whenever possible, the entity most directly affected by a decision shall be the principal party responsible for decision and implementation, with the other entities facilitating and assisting. Each congregation, synod, and separately incorporated ministry, as well as the churchwide organization itself, is a separate legal entity and is responsible for exercising its powers and authorities.

d.   Each congregation and synod in its governing documents shall include the Confession of Faith and Statement of Purpose and such structural components as are required in this constitution. Beyond these common elements, congregations and synods shall be free to organize in such manner as each deems appropriate for its jurisdiction.[13]

These statements seem to reflect an element of contingency theory that allows for adaptability to circumstances within the environment of the affected component. If something happens at the local congregational level, the congregation is free to adapt accordingly without waiting upon a bureaucratic bog-down of upward and downward command and control decision-making processes. Likewise, if the synod has a synodical decision, it can function within its sphere. And yet, all three expressions communicate and rely upon each other.

When we look closer at the organizational structure of the ELCA it is somewhat more complex to articulate and, perhaps, less egalitarian than it seems. Figure 1 is slightly deceiving in that it depicts the three expressions of the church as equal and interlocking partners. Perhaps a more accurate portrayal of the organizational structure is found in my interpretation of the structure in figure 2. This matrix shows three dynamics at play in the structure. The first dynamic is represented by the three strata (or expressions) of the church—the congregations at the bottom, the synods in the middle, and the churchwide organization at the top. The second dynamic is the structure within each strata. It is similar for each strata and consists of three basic parts: the ordained clergy (bishop or pastor), the assembly/congregation, and the council. The third dynamic slices vertically through all three strata and creates a separation between the roster of ordained clergy and the laity of the church.

Some Observations and Framing Questions

Mapping Power

ELCA PowerA cursory examination of figure 2 leads to an observation and some subsequent questions. The observation has to do with the key words written along the clergy axis and along the congregation strata. The ELCA appears to have both an episcopal and a congregational polity at work within its organizational structure. The first question is whether it is possible to have both forms of polity simultaneously at play? The next question would be, assuming it is possible, how can it work? The real question is that of power. Where is the power in the ELCA and how does it flow through the organization?

Let us first analyze the structure of the individual strata. There are three components to each strata—ordained clergy, congregation, and council. The ELCA constitution places the power of decision making into the hands of the congregation. The congregation has the power to call a pastor, form a church council, and make financial decisions through a democratic vote of all church members. The church council—comprised of volunteer laity—has the power to run the ministries of the church. The pastor may or may not serve as a member of the council, depending upon the will of the congregation. The model congregational constitution states,

Only such authority as is delegated to the Congregation Council or other organizational units in this congregation’s governing documents is recognized. All remaining authority is retained by the congregation.[14]

This form of congregational power runs up the strata as well. The synod assembly is comprised of voting members sent by local congregations. The assembly has the power to make all decisions through democratic vote, including the power to elect the bishop. The Assembly appoints a council to manage the regular affairs of the synodical ministries while the assembly is not in session. The churchwide stratum is the same as that of the synod. The churchwide assembly is comprised of voting members sent by the synods. The assembly appoints the council and elects the presiding bishop while the council manages the affairs of the assembly between sessions.

What About the Clergy?

So far the ELCA sounds like a congregationalist polity. The assembly of members holds all the power, even over the clergy. What, then, does the clergy do? Here is where it gets interesting. Before we can answer that question it will be helpful to pause and look at the bottom of figure 2 and discuss the purpose of the church. The Constitution defines the church as

A congregation [that] is a community of baptized persons whose existence depends on the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments and whose purpose is to worship God, to nurture its members, and to reach out in witness and service to the world.[15]

The function of the church can be essentially boiled down into three parts: the Word, the Sacrament, and the Diaconal Ministries. It is in this distinction that the true issue of power comes into play. The ELCA states that only ordained clergy can administer the Word and the Sacrament, thus creating an ontological division between the clergy and the laity. The clergy controls the sacrament and the laity needs the sacrament as the means of grace. Herein lies the age-old problem for Lutherans. Does the laity need the sacrament as the means of Grace? Does the sacrament need the ordained clergy to administer it for efficacy? How much of the clergy-controlled sacrament is a carry over from Medieval theology that is, in reality, an attempt to maintain control of the church? Where does the priesthood of all believers fit into this conversation?

Luther, and the majority of Lutherans throughout the centuries, have maintained that the clergy is necessary so that all things can be done in good order.

The ELCA constitution states in 7.11

This church affirms the universal priesthood of all its baptized members. In its function and its structure this church commits itself to the equipping and supporting of all its members for their ministries in the world and in this church. It is within this context of ministry that this church calls some of its baptized members for specific ministries in this church.

It continues in 7.21

Within the people of God and for the sake of the Gospel ministry entrusted to all believers, God has instituted the office of ministry of Word and Sacrament. To carry out this ministry, this church calls and ordains qualified persons.[16]

We will discuss these issues further in the final portion of this paper. For now we will leave the discussion as a simple observation about the flow of power. The congregations hold the power to make most of the decisions in the church. The clergy holds the power over the sacraments and the rostering of pastors who are qualified to preside over the sacraments. The congregation can call and dismiss the pastor, but the bishop controls who can be called. On the one hand we have a Congregationalist polity in the daily functions of the diaconal ministries—everything other than Word and Sacrament—and on the other hand we have an Episcopal polity in the administration of Word and Sacrament. There is a power struggle latent within this system. The church must prioritize what is most important for the life of the congregation. Is it the ministries of the church or the administration of Word and Sacrament?

Another nuance of this power structure is the simple question, who is in control? Is the pastor the leader of the church? Is the council president the leader of the church? Is the bishop the leader of the church?

Moving Up the Strata

These issues are paralleled in each strata of the organization. The bishop is considered the pastor of the synod. The bishop has the authority to approve and install individuals to the roster of ordained clergy. Outside of that authority, the bishop functions as the CEO of the synod organization and facilitates the Synod Assembly. The assembly is the decision-making body of the synod. It is comprised of voting members who are sent from each local congregation in the synod. The voting member is not a delegate and is not bound to vote according to his or her constituency, but is sent to vote his or her conscience at the assembly. The synod also has a council that serves as the board of directors for the synod, but is bound to function within the constitution of the synod and cannot make decisions outside of the assembly.

The Churchwide Organization expression of the church is structured in the same way as the synod. However, the Presiding Bishop has less authority in that he or she does not have direct control over the rostered clergy. That authority rests on the college of synodical bishops. The Presiding Bishop functions as the pastor of the Churchwide organization and the CEO of the organization. There is a churchwide council that functions as the board of directors of the organization. All decision-making power lies in the Churchwide Assembly. This is comprised of voting members who are sent by the Synod Assemblies.

A Final Question

The ELCA Constitution is the result of a decade of conversation within the CLNC. Each church—the LCA, ALC, and AELC—brought something to the table and felt they had something to lose in the merger. The question that remains, in light of the purpose of this paper, is whether the ELCA constitution formed a true collaborative union through communicative action in which a win/win third alternative was reached, or if it defaulted into a compromise in which each party felt that it lost something in the merger.[17]

Part Three: Toward a Realized Missional ELCA

What is a Missional Polity, Anyway?

Dr. Craig Van Gelder has stated that there has yet to be written a truly missional polity.[18] Why is this true? Perhaps part of the reason for this is that missional ecclesiology has only been recently percolating in the theological community and has not yet matured enough to frame its own polity. Perhaps another reason is that the western church is desperately clinging to its former place of privilege and power within the center of the near-extinct colonial Christianity that has dominated its history for the past 1,500 years and is not willing to make the radical changes necessary to align itself with the movement of God in the world. Perhaps it is a combination of both.

I stated at the beginning of this paper that this is a hermeneutical exercise. It is a conversation between the horizons of the ELCA’s current polity and that of a missional polity. I have attempted to sketch a brief portrait of the ELCA’s horizon in regard to polity. If I hope to bring it into conversation with a missional polity then I must attempt to articulate what I mean by a missional polity.

A Theological Imagination

If Van Gelder is correct, and there is no extant missional polity, then how should I proceed? We must start with a missional theological imagination. One of Van Gelder’s postulates is: The church is, the church does what it is, the church organizes what it does.[19] A missional polity cannot be a concretized architectural design, but must reflect the dynamic movement of God. The Triune God is at work in the world through the pluriform, polycentric Spirit.[20] The missio dei is to bring about the reign of God through the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus Christ. This is a proleptic eschatological kingdom in which God invites the church to partner with God’s mission to unmask the powers of evil and draw all nations into the shalom of God.[21] God is active in all nations and not localized within one church or denomination. The church is gathered to be a symbol of God’s shalom within community, and then sent into the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.[22]

It is important to note for the discussion of missional polity that God is already at work in the world. The church is not the gate keeper to God’s presence. The church must understand this directional flow. The church is not called to attract those who are out in the world to come into the church in order to meet God. The church is called to move into the world to see what God is already doing and be a partner in that. Yes, the church is a gathering of people around Word and Sacrament. However, the gathering is for the edification of the church, the exemplification of the proleptic kingdom of peace, healing, and reconciliation among humanity, and the equipping for a life of incarnational other-oriented service and ministry in every aspect of daily living in the community.

A Biblical Hermeneutic

A missional polity must also draw from a biblical understanding of leadership and polity. The scripture does not prescribe a specific polity. It simply describes how different local congregations functioned within their specific contexts. This is an important point. The church of the New Testament was an organic structure that found itself in a pluralistic culture characterized by discontinuous change. The church was the oppressed other in the shadow of an Empire. It was led by the Holy Spirit and a multiplicity of leaders—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, administrators, bishops, and elders.[23]

The only prescriptive biblical insights that we can glean for church polity is that the church must be a plurality of leaders, submitted to the guiding of the Holy Spirit, under the leadership/headship of Christ, for the purpose of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. Leadership is simply one gift among equal gifts necessary for the functioning of the body of Christ in the world.

Theoretically Informed

An adaptive, organic entity like the church must be able to 1) discern its environment, 2) be abreast of the most current methods of organization theory that are in tune with the environment, and 3) utilize the appropriate theory that will allow it to respond in a positive way to the environment. How, then, does the missional church structure itself in a world characterized by discontinuous change, a globalized awareness, and a pluralistic culture? The church must first understand itself to be an open system that can adapt to its environment with minimal effort. Organization theorists suggest that a neo-weberian bureaucracy, characterized by a top-down, command-and-control leadership style is the least malleable structure available to organizations. The church must recognize that it is comprised of uniquely gifted and called individuals who form a social network that collectively navigates society as an open system. It is more like an organic body than a building. It is not fixed in one place, but is held together by a semi-permeable membrane that allows inward and outward interchange with its environment. It is adaptable to new circumstances and allows for continual reformation.[24]

Social Network theories can provide helpful insight into the polity of the missional church.[25] An organization is a collection of social relationships between individual actors. There is not one leader who controls the entire organization. Rather, there are several leaders who are central to relational clusters—or nodes—within the organization. These leaders work together through a process of communicative action to discern where the Holy Spirit is guiding the organization. The relational ties between actors within the organization are fluid and have the ability to change as different needs arise. Each individual and node is empowered to respond to the Spirit’s guidance with minimal interference from power-based leadership structures.

Pulling it All Together

Have we arrived at a missional polity? No. We haven’t because it is impossible to do so. There cannot be any one structure that is defined as missional. The missional church is a church that understands itself to be a dynamic, organic, adaptive organism that is willing to change its structure as the environment dictates and the Spirit directs. In a stable environment a more centralized, bureaucratic structure works well. In an environment of discontinuous change a more diversified, flattened, responsively nimble structure is essential. Today’s environment is one of discontinuous change, therefore most churches in the United States that seek to be missional will need to be more flattened and fluid.

The missional church is based upon its identity not its polity. The missional church understands itself to be gathered by God for community, equipped by leadership for service, and sent into the world for peace, healing, and justice, in the swell of God’s proleptic, eschatological Kingdom. How it chooses to organize itself is entirely up to each local gathering.

What About the ELCA, then?

We now come to the fusion of horizons. Is it possible for the ELCA to embody a missional polity? I believe it is possible. I believe this is true because, as I mentioned in the last section, it is not the polity that makes a church missional, but the self-identity that does so. In fact, I think the ELCA has already made great strides toward a missional ecclesiology.

The ELCA has two big challenges. First, it must solve the education/self-identity hurdle. Second, it must solve the power flow issue.

Missional Identity on Paper

Allow me to explain the first challenge. The ELCA’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know what it is. The ELCA constitution is a very missional document. The first four chapters are inspiring. They read like a missional manifesto.

Article 4.01, under the chapter heading Purpose of the Church, summarizes the missional nature of the ELCA’s self-perception.

the Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.[26]

A few observations will highlight the missional nature of this passage. First, notice how it says that the church is a people, not the people of God. This leaves open the possibility that God could have and can work in and through other people groups outside of the Judeo-Christian horizon. The missional church is aware that within the global community there are many cultures that have existed pre and outside the Judeo-Christian narrative. This begs the question, how did God interact with these cultures?

Second, the church is created by God. The church is not a human enterprise in its essence. The church is a mysterious product of God at work in the world.

Third, the church is created in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Two sub points emerge from this text. First, God is trinity. The Confession of Faith begins in Article 2.01, “This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[27] This is the first and most fundamental reality from which the missional church is formed. Secondly, the church is not an objective creation completely outside the Triune God, but is created in Christ and empowered by the Spirit, thus it is a participant in the divine community. This eastern, perichoretic understanding of the trinity is a needed and welcomed correction to the monarchialism that has dominated the western church. The ELCA confession reflects this correction well as it places the church within the life-giving and sustaining community of the Trinity.

Fourth, it is God’s activity in the world. It is not the mission of the church. It is the missio dei. God is at work creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world. Each of these participles identify another important theological point essential to the missional church. They are ongoing acts. It states that God is creating, not that God created. God is redeeming, God is sanctifying. This language opens itself to constructive dialogue with a proleptic eschatology in which God is continually at work creating and recreating the world until it comes to its intended fruition.

Fifth, the church is to bear witness to God’s activity. A witness is someone who has seen an event firsthand and then tells about the experience. The Pharisees asked the blind man who he thought Jesus was, and he simply replied, “once I was blind, but now I can see.”[28] It is not the job of the church to go into the world and convince people about a theological construct through clever arguments and polished presentations. The church is to bear witness to the reality of God at work. It is experience and praxis that precedes theology and proclamation.

Sixth, the church is called and sent. This point deals with the identity of the church. It is called, on the one hand. There is a uniqueness to the church that must stand in contrast to the forces of evil in the world. Just as God called Abraham and set him apart for service to bless the nations, so God calls the church to be set apart as a servant to all people. To be called is not to be elite, better, or exclusively within the love of God, but it is to be different. It is to be called to a standard of sacrificial, other-oriented love in the example of Christ. Then, on the other hand, the church is sent. Herein lies the true meaning of the term apostolic. An apostle was a person who was sent as an official ambassador by the government. Being one, holy, catholic, and apostolic[29], the church is called by God for service, and sent as God’s ambassador of the Gospel to people who need the healing and liberating power of Grace.

The problem for the ELCA is that ninety-nine percent of the people sitting in the pews of ELCA churches have no idea that it is missional. They are not aware of two important factors. 1) They aren’t even aware of the term missional ecclesiology. 2) The ELCA constitution reads like the document of a missional church.

Most church members are still functioning within their old paradigms of LCA, ALC, or AELC. They function as if the church is still at the center of society and exists for the purpose of dispensing religious commodities—baptism, confirmation, weddings, funerals, sacrament—like a static vending machine sitting on the street corner. The population that holds this kind of cultural memory is aging rapidly and having an increasingly difficult time passing that identity on to the next generation.

The CNLC drafted a missional document—at least in the first four chapters. It is debatable whether this was the conscious intent, but, by the grace of God, the document exists. If the ELCA is going be missional, do missional things, and then organize the missional things it does, then it is going to have to first truly embrace its missional identity at the ground level. This can only come through a concerted effort for biblical praxis. The people must be shown what it looks like to be missional through experiential learning.[30]

The Issue of Power

Earlier I posed the question regarding whether or not the CNLC drafted a mutually beneficial third alternative or if it merely came to a compromise. I sense that ELCA polity, as it currently stands, is a compromise between the Congregationalist and the Episcopal predecessor churches. A compromise leaves both parties feeling like they settled for a lose/lose result. The clergy/laity distinction mentioned in part two of this paper sets up the ELCA for continued controversy and conflicted power struggles in the future.

Is there an easy solution? Of course not. If there was, the CNLC would have discovered it. Why, then, did the CNLC land on a hybrid/compromise model of Episcopal clergy and congregational diaconal ministry? It was, on one level, built out of the pragmatic need to make a decision in which everyone’s voice was represented. When there are only two options—in this case either Episcopal or congregational—and no third alternative seems apparent, then compromise is the only tenable solution. The CNLC did, however, have at least the theological intuition to draft a missional statement. Perhaps the third alternative is to actually make the missional move and give up centralized control. The shift is not as much in polity as it is in identity and theological imagination.

Both options—episcopal and congregational—are options that were born under the same paradigm—Christendom. They both ask the same question: how can we get/keep people into the church and how can we control the church? The missional church doesn’t want to control anything. The missional church wants to send people into the world with the mission of God’s hope through biblical praxis.

Are there any solutions? I think the answer is two-fold. First, the church needs to continually focus on the local congregation as the primary manifestation of the church. One of the biggest temptations for the ELCA is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the churchwide organization. Certain individuals who come from a confessionalist tradition may be tempted to view the churchwide organization as the church in totum. If the church sees itself this way and believes that the church is most intensely visible when the churchwide assembly is gathered and the presiding bishop is leading in Word and Sacrament, then the ELCA is in trouble.[31] This understanding of the church flows from a traditional, confessionalist theology that understands the gospel to be the grace of God that is dispensed through the sacrament and taught in the spoken word by the clergy in the context of the worship service. According to this paradigm it is up to God to draw people to this gift. It is up to the church to simply maintain proper order in Word and Sacrament. This is the ecclesiology of Medieval Christendom that centralizes God within the church and power within the clergy and is antithetical to missional ecclesiology. The ELCA Constitution does not dictate this self-identity, but it does allow room for it to those who want to press the point.

If the ELCA is going to be missional, then it must, from the presiding bishop down, emphasize that the local church is the church. It doesn’t need more to be the church, but it is also connected to all the other local churches in a larger network that forms the larger body of Christ. The churchwide organization is an equipping organization that exists for the support of the local church. There is a great advantage to the collective resources of 5,000,000 people. Put simply, the local church is the dog and the synod and churchwide organization is the tail. The dog needs to wag the tail, not the other way around.

Secondly, and connected to the previous issue, the church must address the issue of good order. The Lutheran controversy over power in the church boils down to this one phrase. What did the Augsburg Confession mean when it said that the Word and Sacrament must be done in good order? Did it mean that the bread and wine should never be touched by the laity because they are uneducated and not worthy or able to distribute the Lord’s Supper to God’s people? Or, was it simply seeking to guard against the corruption that the power brokers of the Medieval church had brought to the table over centuries of abuse?

Richard Bliese says that there must be a rereading of Word and Sacrament. He proposes that “we use the phrase ‘Word, Sacrament, and Christian community’ as an alternative reading regarding how Jesus comes to people salvifically.”[32] He goes on to say that

when Word, Sacrament, and Christian community are fully freed up to be God’s means of grace in the hands of the baptized….A phoenix will rise from the ashes of a declining church as Lutherans rediscover their doctrine of baptism, the baptismal call of all believers to the priesthood, and the relationship between baptism and vocation.[33]

Wyvetta Bullock suggests that

insights from the social sciences help us understand that congregations function as nonlinear, self-organizing systems. Self-organizing systems are intentional, have a purpose, and are open to change….in nature, cells within organisms move in, with, and among their environment….We need to think of congregations in terms of being interrelated teams or cells of activity rather than as rigid organizational structures.[34]

What is the answer to the power flow issue? Power should flow to the local congregation and to the vocation of all the baptized as the priesthood of all believers. Does this mean that the clergy should be abolished and the role of the bishop is unnecessary? Not at all. It is important to have leaders in the church who are trained and equipped to lead. Ordination is a helpful tool to ensure good training. However, ordination does not need to equate to power. The biblical/theological model for leadership and good order in the church is that there is a plurality of leaders that are focused on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.


Can the ELCA embody a missional polity? I believe it can. The path to this embodiment is one of education. The ELCA is already missional on paper, it just doesn’t know it yet. Both the people and the pastors need to learn what the first four chapters of the ELCA constitution really mean.

The root of these issues lies within theological education. If pastors are trained to be the center of power and the only authority who can handle the Word and Sacrament, then that is how they will function. If pastors are trained to be missional leaders who are called to empower the baptized into missional/biblical praxis by demonstrating service and empowerment within the larger community, and if the bishops are trained to be the support and equipping network for the pastors and congregations involved in missional life, then the ELCA will embody what it claims to be on paper.




Bliese, Richard H., and Craig Van Gelder. The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005.


ELCA. “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”  (2011): 232 p.


Gritsch, Eric W. A History of Lutheranism. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.


Hatch, Mary Jo, and Ann L. Cunliffe. Organization Theory : Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Kilduff, Martin, and Wenpin Tsai. Social Networks and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2003.


Melancthon, Philip. The Augsburg Confession Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church, edited by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.  (accessed November 3, 2011).


Peters, Ted. God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.


Scandrette, Mark. Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011.


Simpson, Gary M. Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.


Thorkelson, Willmar. Lutherans in the U.S.A. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1969.


Van Gelder, Craig. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007.


Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. The Missional Church in Perspective : Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation The Missional Network. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.


Welker, Michael. God the Spirit. 1st English-language ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.




[1] By this I am referring to a geocentric cosmology. The earth was the center of the universe and was surrounded by concentric sphere emanating from it. God was beyond the outer sphere in the realm of eternity. This physical distance and proximity necessitated that God mediate his grace through the vehicle of the church. This cosmological paradigm is what gave credence to the divine right of kings and the authority of the magesterium. Luther’s reformation, in combination with the Copernican revolution, would wreak havoc on this cosmological paradigm until it would be eventually overturned by the heliocentric cosmology and Newtonian Physics.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton

[3] From Luther’s Works, Volume 44 quoted in Eric W. Gritsch, A History of Lutheranism, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 24.

[4] Philip Melancthon, “The Augsburg Confession,” in Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church, ed. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921) (accessed November 3, 2011).

[5] Ibid., Article XXVIII:53

[6] Ibid., Article XXVIII:76-78.

[7] Willmar Thorkelson, Lutherans in the U.S.A (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1969), 5-15.

[8]Ibid., 28-36.

[9] ELCA website. “Lutheran Roots in America.” http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History/Lutheran-Roots-in-America.aspx#newplayer (accessed September 18, 2011).

[10] http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Synodical-Relations/Regions.aspx (accessed November 3, 2011).

[11] .jpg image downloaded from http://www.elca.org/~/media/Images/Who%20We%20Are/Our%20Three%20Expressions/wwa_three_expressions.ashx (accessed November 3, 2011).

[12] ELCA, “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” (2011): 20.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Ibid., 213.

[15] Ibid., 62.

[16] Ibid., 27.

[17] Communicative action is a phrase used by Jürgen Habermas to describe the process of two or more parties entering into conversation in which both parties reach a third alternative that is better than  what would have happened in either a win/lose scenario or a compromise that inevitably results in a lose/lose feeling in both parties. Gary Simpson discusses the missional application of this idea in Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

[18] He made this statement several times during the course LD8525 Congregational Leadership at Luther Seminary in the fall of 2011.

[19] This is a basic premise of Craig Van Gelder’s work on the missional church. Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).

[20] For a complex and robust discussion of the pluriform and polycentric Spirit, see Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).

[21] Ted Peters, God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

[22] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective : Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011).

[23] All of these terms are use to denote leadership in the church. A clear demonstration of plurality of leadership is found in Ephesians 4.

[24] Mary Hatch does an excellent job of mapping out the landscape of organization theory in  Mary Jo Hatch and Ann L. Cunliffe, Organization Theory : Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[25] Martin Kilduff and Wenpin Tsai, Social Networks and Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2003).

[26] ELCA: 21.

[27] Ibid., 19.

[28] John 9:25

[29] Article 2.04 of the ELCA Constitution places the church firmly within the creedal tradition, following the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. The phrase “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” is a universal understanding of the church.

[30] A good example of this kind of biblical praxis is found in Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[31] This issue was exposed to me through a conversation I had with my synod’s bishop’s assistant.

[32] Richard H. Bliese and Craig Van Gelder, The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005), 41.

[33] Ibid., 46.

[34] Ibid., 88.

Presentation on Mashup Religion by John McClure

A Presentation on Mashup Religion by John S. McClure

by Steve Thomason

 A Term Paper Presented to Professors Mary Hess and Gary Simpson

Luther Seminary | As a Requirement in Course CL8530 Gospel and Culture

 St. Paul, Minnesota |  2012


John McClure is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Preaching and Worship at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He specializes in homiletics and has written several books and articles on the subject. He is a past president (2003) of the Academy of Homiletics, and is co-editor, with Dale Andrews, of the Academy’s journal Homiletic. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), he served as the pastor of Ensley Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and taught preaching for 17 years at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary before arriving at Vanderbilt in 2003.[1]

McClure’s “street cred” for writing a book about digital music sampling comes from the fact that he is an accomplished musician. He grew up in a musical family, plays several instruments, and has played in various bands throughout his life. His musical styles and interests cover a wide range of musical genres. He now lives in Nashville, which is one of the premier locations for professional sound recording and engineering. He has grown in his knowledge of sound engineering, beginning in an analog world and evolving into the digital age of music samples, remixing, and musical mashup.[2] This book, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, uses the world of digital mashup remixing of music as an analogy for how theologians should approach the discipline of theology in a postmodern context.

Content Summary

What does popular music have to do with theological inquiry? Certain theological traditions would say that it has nothing to do with it. Theology, they would say, is a self-contained discipline that derives truth from biblical study combined with human reason and church tradition. The product of theological inquiry is then set in contrast to popular culture for the purpose of either condemning it or transforming it from the top down. John McClure would disagree. He thinks that the theologian has much to learn from popular music—not just from the lyrics, but from the very process of creating music through the digital sampling and remixing of previously recorded “beats” from various musical genres.

The purpose of this book is to use “popular song-making in a heuristic and analogical way. [McClure is] concerned to show that popular song-makers have a lot to teach theologians about inventing artifacts that will both keep traditions alive (through sampling) and foster new ideas through creative juxtapositions across religious traditions, cultures, and traditional disciplinary lines.”[3] McClure uses the popular songwriter as an analogy for the theologian. The popular songwriter stands in contrast to the romantic or bohemian songwriter. These latter two types of songwriters held the ideal that the writer was detached and aloof from culture and wrote into culture from the outside. The popular songwriters habitus stands within culture seeking to develop and mature within a tradition. “Theological invention within this frame of reference is profoundly hermeneutical and communal, sustained by shared traditions of engaging and interpreting texts and life.”[4] The songwriter writes music from within a tradition—jazz, bluegrass, rock, goth, etc.—and seeks to both become deepened within that tradition and expand the tradition with invention. The theological writer, too, writes theology within a tradition—Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.—and seeks to both become deepened within it and expand it with theological invention.

McClure uses the example of a digital audio workstation (DAW) as an analogy for how to begin composing theology for mashup religion. The DAW is built upon a multi-track system in which multiple tracks of sound are stacked vertically in layers. Each track contains a distinct instrument or sample of a musical arrangement. The tracks play synchronously through time and offer an unlimited array of digital audio manipulation through effects plug-ins. McClure suggests that the theologian has four tracks to work with, based upon four authorities for theological invention—Scripture, culture/experience, theology, and reason. He names these tracks: Scripture tracks, culture tracks, theology tracks and message tracks. The Scripture track is aimed at the listener’s memory. The Culture track is aimed at the listener’s daily lives. The Theology track is aimed at the listener’s theological world and worldview. The Message track is aimed at the listener’s lexicon of ideas. Writing theology across these four layers simultaneously will create a shift from a hermeneutical approach to an intertextual approach to theological invention.[5]

McClure identifies multiple styles within each of these four tracks. This vast variety of styles within the multiple tracks creates what he calls a “theological loop browser.”

The idea of browsing samples of theological traditions and styles of tracking those traditions demonstrates a new kind of reflexivity that is possible in the invention of religious ideas today. Making use of search engines and other technologies for browsing, the theologian browses for ideas within religious traditions that, when juxtaposed, will create theological intonations and ideas that have the potential to convey new forms of religious thought.[6]

A key concept for Mashup Religion is that of intertextuality. “Writers who embrace intertextuality seek new content and forms by entering into relationships with distinctly other voices, juxtaposing their ideas with a lager range of voices than may be available within a given tradition of writing.”[7] McClure calls this inventing the possible. He says, citing Victor Vitanza, that the West has traditionally either thought in terms of the ideal (Plato) or the actual (Aristotle) as the goal. These two forms speak of stability, or stasis. A third alternative shifts to metastasis in the invention the possible. Here the writer steps out into the void to create the goal.[8]

In this situation, random juxtapositions within a particular creative place (chora) and time (kairos) pry memory away from stasis and into metastatic forms of memory (and knowledge) only accessed through positioned and opportune relationships between loci of meaning. An artist or theologian in this mode gains access to new worlds made possible by this adventure into open-ended collaboration.[9]

McClure calls for theologians to move beyond semiotics in which theology must conform to strict cultural/linguistic rules. Post-semiotic theologians will be pragmatic and will embrace textuality and a file-sharing mentality. They recognize that “all words, traditions, and styles of speech are borrowed, plagiarized, and exchanged in an attempt to communicate—that is to discover and share a lived religious world.”[10] Theology of this type will be deeply embedded in a human experience of attempting to articulate a human and transcendent encounter. “Through a range of gestures, utterances, and speaking-across codes and conventions, theologians find that they can cross over onto the ground of another’s desire for God. If this crossing-over process is reciprocated to some extent, theologians can begin to utter together something of the God witnessed through the lenses of these divergent religious desires.”[11] It is as if we have moved past the semiotic domain of formalized Christianity and entered into the day of Pentecost once again in which all languages were brought together to make sense out of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring within their own language and across all the languages.

McClure says that “languages are nothing more than things in the world that human beings shape and reshape in order to identify and deal together with the conditions of life under which they live, as they perceive them, and to identify, live into and bring about certain (hopefully good and true) desires and effects given that situation.”[12] Theologians who cross semantic domains bear witness to a certain type of silence in which God escapes being named. God’s silence of resurrection makes room for speech in response to God. Mashup Religion also bears witness to the breaking of silence. Theologians must speak and make a great deal of noise celebrating the “unrestricted desire to know.”[13]

McClure uses music fan cultures as an analogy for local communities and the purpose of congregations. The average consumer of music now has access to music from multiple genres and has the ability to create her own bricolage of music in a personal soundtrack. This is also true of theological thought. Spiritual seekers can peruse a vast array of theological samples and create a theological bricolage. These theological bricoleurs will view traditional local communities as local resources rather than authorities that contain completed truth. “Local congregations and divinity schools are used as nodes of complexity within the network flows of mediated popular culture.”[14] Fan cultures create “mattering maps” which express what matters most to the people. This helps point the theological writer to what Paul Tillich calls the “ultimate concerns” of people.

McClure says that fandoms are on a spiritual, religious pilgrimage that represents four distinct aspects of all spiritual pilgrimages. The first aspect is a desire to leave. The second is a desire to transcend. The third is a desire to return different. The fourth is the desire to critique. Fans attend concerts, listen to music, and interact with the musicians and fellow fans with these four desires as the motivation. In so doing they create meaning and value in the work of the musician.[15]  These pilgrimages typically take place in disembodied, digital spaces. Eventually the spiritual bricolage process will leave the seeker wanting depth, complexity, and steerage. Local congregations can provide an embodied host through extending true hospitality to these spiritual wanderers.

The theologian must be an ethnomusicologist in order to invent theology for a particular audience. The theologian must then address seven questions. 1. What is the emotional and spiritual feel or affect of people’s lives? 2. What matters to the fandoms in our audience? 3. What are people leaving in order to go on these pilgrimages? 4. What are the forms of transcendence that people seek to experience? 5. What do people seem to take home with them? 6. What are the critiques of the dominant culture and religion that are implicit in these fan cultures? 7. Why are people actually or potentially adding you or your institution as a fandom to their mattering maps? When the theologian attends to these questions she can find greater direction for writing theology and seek to provide depth, complexity, and steerage for the pilgrim and within the local congregation in which they seek to find an embodied home.

The final chapter invites theologians to analyze the lyrics of popular music in order to discover key theological ideas in the culture and thus connect to deep theological desires of the people. McClure walks through several popular artists and catalogues their lyrics into different traditional theological categories.

Critique and Implications

I begin my response with an overall voice of praise for Mashup Religion. I personally resonated with its creativity and inclusivity, as well as its direct applicability to the task of preaching. I will raise two small observation/critiques. They are more questions than anything, because I do not have a constructive response to them. I simply raise them as a conversation point for the respondent and the class.

My first question flows from an observation about the source of McClure’s theology—his Theological World, as he would say. It seems that I hear the theological voice of Paul Tillich and the hermeneutical voices of those who would fall into the category of deconstructive postmodernists, e.g. Wittgenstein, Derrida, Foucault. Tillich’s theological world is that of correlationism, in which God is present in all human systems and the notion of objective or propositional knowledge about God is impossible. Therefore, in conjunction with the aforementioned hermeneuticists, all theological inquiry and writing—and the theological traditions from which they spring—are simply word games and frail human attempts to articulate the infinite. This proposition does, on the one hand, open up vast possibilities for liberative, cross-linguistical sampling and remixing. That is beautiful. However, does it not also eliminate any possibility for evaluation and discernment? McClure does call for a language that is “hopefully good and true”[16] but what is the basis for goodness and trueness?

I have already raised questions, but my real question is deeper. It seems that McClure’s framing of Mashup Religion is dependent upon the Tillichian, deconstructive hermeneutic in order to function. A theological writer must first detach all theological traditions from any semiotic mooring, or illusion of truth, and then equalize all voices as simply “beats” in the DJ’s crate. He appears to value each tradition, but in “crating” them does he not devalue them as well? Is it possible to be a Mashup theologian from within one of the traditions, or does it require a form of “transcendence” out of the bondage of semiotics before one can be enlightened enough to begin remixing? Is McClure truly writing theology from “within” the culture, like the pop songwriter, or has he created a new form of intellectual elitism that allows the writer to “rise above” the crates as a transcendent creator (which would be an ironic contradiction to his call for communal meaning-making).

My second critique is closely related to the first, but takes on a more personal flavor. I found McClure’s critique of the Emergent Conversation generally, and Brian McLaren specifically, to be interesting and telling. In chapter three he tells about a conference of the United Church of Canada at which he spoke. He was accused of two things in the wake of his presentation. On the one side he was accused of being a deconstructive atheist (which is essentially what my previous critique hinted at). On the other side he was accused of being in line with the Emerging Church Conversation. His subsequent undressing and belittling of the Emergent Church conversation left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth for two reasons. First, I must admit, is because Brian McLaren and the book A Generous Orthodoxy[17] was very influential in my life, as it allowed me freedom to see the Gospel and the body of Christ as a multi-faceted diamond. Second, McClure’s critique smells of intellectual condescension. He first categorizes the Emergents as post-evangelicals (which is essentially true). He then divides them into two basic camps. On the one side are those who “ultimately recapitulate to a consistent usage model of theological invention, lining up reflexively under the semantics of the conservative evangelical movement and the new measures pragmatism of Finney.”[18] This group he dismisses. The second group is that of the Emergents who are engaging in the decentered, communicative process of appropriating vintage traditions as suggested in Mashup Religion. However, he calls them naïve and claims that they are not yet appropriating these other vintage traditions in any great depth. These Emergents have reduced McClure’s ideas to their use-value. McClure says, “those of us who are aware of the complexities of these traditions and languages will perhaps be perturbed by this reduction.” Those of us. McClure has drawn the line between us and them, and the way in which he says it seems to elevate the us to a higher state of awareness or enlightenment. I’m sure my critique is flowing from my own naiveté and post-evangelical reductionism and use-value Finneyan pragmatism (my hope is that this question will spark a Dr. Simpson mini-lecture that will re-frame these categories for us!).

My question does have some value for the Missional Church conversation beyond that of the wounded feelings of a recovering post-evangelical who happens to really like Brian McLaren. One of the recurring conversations among CML students at Luther (in my experience) has to do with the observation that the term “Missional Church” has been claimed by multiple groups. Of course, this observation was the impetus for Van Gelder and Zsheile’s book The Missional Church in Perspective.[19] However, the four branches of the Missional Church that they described also labels Emergents and post-evangelicals in sub-missional categories. Those who were placed there did not necessarily appreciate this evaluation. What then is the Missional Church? Would McClure consider his Mashup Religion and its homiletical implications to be missional? Or, would he respond to that label in the same way that he responded to being called Emergent? How does the Trinity factor into McClure’s Mashup Religion? How does Jesus factor into McClure’s Theological World? I leave these questions hanging.

I will now turn to a positive note. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Mashup Religion provides a nice ending point for our Gospel and Cultures course because he provides practical answers for the questions raised by Kathryn Tanner in the first book we read.[20] Tanner proposed that the Gospel lived in the dialogue between Christian cultures. It lives in the spaces that permeate the inbetweeness. It is the engagement between, among, and within Christian cultures (and all cultures, for that matter) and the style with which the engagement takes place that embodies the Good News. McClure’s Mashup Religion shows us how to do that. His analogy of the theological loop sampler and remixing from the “crates” of theological tradition provides the theological writer in this postmodern world with tools to engage in communicative action with the other.

This book has great implications for preaching. It also provides some clear methodologies, or approaches, to how to engage in communicative action within the local congregation. I love the image of the local church as an embodied host and place of hospitality for the spiritual pilgrim that offers religious depth, complexity, and steerage. This vision allows the local congregation and its leadership to blur the lines between us/them, right/wrong, truth/error, and truly welcome the stranger. The church can hold its tradition deeply, while in the same moment enter into an intertextuality and communicative action that will strive, not for the ideal, or for the actual, but for the possible. That sounds like Gospel and Cultures to me.


McClure, John S. Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011.

McLaren, Brian D. A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2006.

Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation The Missional Network. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.



[1] http://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/people/bio/john-mcclure (accessed December 4, 2012)

[2] John S. McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), vii-xi.

[3] Ibid.,  6-7.

[4] Ibid.,  40.

[5] Ibid.,  43-53.

[6] Ibid.,  79.

[7] Ibid.,  87.

[8] Ibid.,  96.

[9] Ibid.,  98.

[10] Ibid.,  102.

[11] Ibid.,  104.

[12] Ibid.,  107.

[13] Ibid.,  108.

[14] Ibid.,  127.

[15] Ibid.,  127-131.

[16] Ibid.,  107.

[17] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2006).

[18] McClure, 105.

[19] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[20] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).