Did I achieve my goal in writing this series? Did I clarify my relationship to the church and find a way forward? Perhaps I had already come to my conclusions and simply had to articulate in detail my reasons. Nevertheless, I have learned from this process. As readers of this series know, I was a leader—an elder—at the heart of a parachurch church for nearly twenty-three years. In this role, I gave lots of time and lots of money to its maintenance. I experienced lots of frustration and anxiety. And there were also moments of joy and success. I loved and still love the people. But my overall conclusion is that the system of organization and traditional social expectations limit how well such an institution can actually manifest the church in the world. Hence I came to the conclusion that I could no longer serve as a leader of an institutional church. Nor can I be an enthusiastic participant in the parachurch church project. I don’t want it to disappear, and I don’t want to discourage those who benefit from it from participation. I too can participate in it and support it in its role as a second circle bridging simple churches to the universal church. But I can no longer direct huge amounts of time and energy and money to its success as an institution. I need to use that time, energy, and money for something I really believe in.
As I said in previous essays, I am a professor, a theologian, a Christian, and a lover of the church. I have had the opportunity to receive an amazing education, and as a professor of theology, I have been given time to teach, read, learn, think, and write. I have had experience in the fulltime paid ministry and as a leader in a church. Hence I feel a call teach what I have learned to as many people as possible in whatever medium I can. As far as my relationship to the church, I participate in a simple church that meets in our house—or online during the pandemic. This has been one of the most profound and encouraging experiences of my life. But as a teacher of the faith I feel a call to serve all believers everywhere, the universal church. I don’t believe I—or any other theologian—should identify myself as a teacher of the specific doctrines characteristic of my tradition. I speak to everyone “as one without authority,” a phrase Kierkegaard used to describe his writing as someone lacking ordination. I view my ministry as trans-congregational and trans-denominational. Like a traveling evangelist—who travels mostly via the internet and books—I will preach the good news to anyone anywhere.
I end now with a prayer and one of my favorite hymns.
Father in Heaven! Bless Thy church everywhere: the persecuted with courage and relief; the weary with rest and renewal; and the lukewarm with revival.
Come Holy Spirit! Quicken the dead; strengthen the weak, embolden the fainthearted.
Come Lord Jesus! Accompany those who must walk lonely paths, give your gentle presence to the dying, and gather your people into their eternal home.
The day Thou Gavest
The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended. The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended: Thy praise shall hollow now our rest.
We thank Thee that Thy Church, unsleeping, While earth rolls onward into light,
Thro’ all the world her watch is keeping, And rests not now by day or night.
The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren ‘neath the western sky;
And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
So be it, Lord: Thy throne shall never, Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;