By David Steele, general secretary
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” -Acts 4:32
After more than two years of pandemic-related limitations, I have returned to a more robust travel schedule. I share the sentiment of many that it is good to be gathered together again. Yet amid the celebratory spirit, there are also undertones of uncertainty, loss, and even trauma. It has been a difficult several years for the Church of the Brethren and its members.
As I was called into my first congregation as a pastor 30 years ago, I would have never imagined the church as it is today. Declining attendance, membership, and a waning commitment to the church were evident and real in the two congregations where I served those many years ago, but not the significant challenges I see the church is experiencing: the significant need for pastors and district executives and leaders; the distrust of the denomination and really anyone outside our local congregation that compounds a growing sense of isolation; the sharpening theological divide fueled by assumptions, social media, and political or social agendas; the diminishing ability to articulate a language of faith and discipleship; the vanishing of our distinctive Brethren witness; and the splintering of the larger church as local congregations withdraw, resulting in some instances of split congregations and families. Our current challenges didn’t just spring up overnight or recently—they have been in the making for years.
Much of my time and the church’s focus during my tenure as General Secretary has been on soul-sapping conflict. Along with other denominational and district leaders, I have spent countless hours prayerfully discussing, researching, discerning, and editing many, many emails and letters. I have met with numerous individuals, groups, and congregations to discuss the typical topics of concern in the Church of the Brethren (sexuality, authority of scripture, accountability, and fracturing of the church). There are other issues, but by far, these have dominated my denominational focus, time, and emotional energy.
There is an illustration in Robert J. Miller’s Lectio Divina series “Fire in the Deep,” of a man stuck in a cave who became so narrowly focused on a hole in the roof that he missed the opportunity to find the true freedom that was hidden in the darkness. I resonate with this story because I believe that we, like other denominations, have convinced ourselves that there is only one way out of our disagreements; therefore, we have been so narrowly focused on solving, addressing, and working to unify the whole of the church around a singular definitive answer that we have missed the freedom hidden in the darkness.
The book of Acts provides a glimpse of a church with a clear sense of unity and purpose–communal sharing that leads to the needs of all being met. Luke, the writer of Acts, emphasizes this sense of togetherness and common ownership at the conclusion of the Pentecost story. This glimpse of the early church is provocative and is less about selling all of our possessions and goods, and more about the radical generosity that was fueled by a love of God and neighbor, and a passionate responsibility to care for those in need.
Have we been so focused on our small holes that we avoided facing the shadows of crisis? I’m convinced we see the decline in membership—and have for 30 years—because of our waning commitments to adapt in ministry and love our neighbors radically. In recent years we have been so preoccupied with scrutinizing every word and action of nearby churches and pastors—or those of other communities and districts—and with seeking ways to hold others accountable that we have neglected our responsibility to care for our neighborhoods and invite people to life-changing conversion. This is about loving all of our brothers and sisters, not limited to those in our own congregations or those we agree with—a love without boundaries. The church in Act shows us that the simple expression of loving our neighbors becomes a radical generosity that unifies us and becomes a tangible sign that authenticates the message of Jesus.
Friends, we need to face the crisis before us together. The hope of God’s community is found when lives are changed. Quite simply, our communities need Jesus. The program and instructions are simple, radical generosity that is born out of love—our love of God, our loving commitment to Christ, and our love of neighbor. The early church had an intense sense of responsibility for each other. It is time that we reclaim that responsibility as we approach the darkness together. May we together find the freedom awaiting us as we encounter and serve as Jesus in our neighborhoods.
Learn more about the faith-building and life-changing ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/greatthings or support them today at www.brethren.org/give.
By David Steele, general secretary