Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Embodying the Gospel in Community

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Embodying the Gospel in Community

Article excerpt

One thing I have learned from the Radical Reformers is that theological thought can never be separated from its embodiment in concrete communities of worship and service. Thus, when asked how my thought has been shaped by engagement with Radical Reformation theology, I must reply--in the spirit of what I have learned from the Anabaptist tradition--that I cannot answer the question without explaining how my life has been shaped by encounter with radical reformation communities.


In the summer of 1971, I decided to drop out of seminary. My one year of study at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University had been a disillusioning experience. The United Methodist Church, the church in which I had grown up, seemed to be a vast, cumbersome bureaucracy; my classmates in seminary seemed less concerned about preaching the gospel than about pursuing professional advancement in the denominational pecking order. At least, that was my uncharitable assessment of the situation. My wife Judy and I, newly married, had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship together and found it compelling but distant from the actual life of the church we had experienced. We had failed to find a congregation in Dallas where we felt nurtured and challenged to grow as disciples of Jesus. I was not sure that ordained ministry was the right vocation for me, and I needed a break to reassess what I was doing. Thus, when an opportunity came for me to teach high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, I seized it.

In Massachusetts we met some people who were interested in starting a Christian intentional community. We had no clear blueprint for what we were doing, but we knew that we wanted a more intense experience of Christian community than we had found in our various denominational churches. Six of us moved into a large old house in Springfield, which we christened The Ark. We developed a pattern of eating meals together, praying together daily, and sharing common expenses. We all read Bonhoeffer's little classic Life Together and tried to put into practice his counsel about the practices of confession, forgiveness and mutual accountability. Our Sunday evening Bible study began to attract friends and neighbors, growing into an informal prayer-and-praise fellowship that regularly brought about fifty people together for singing, prayer, Bible study and a potluck supper.

Some of the participants in this larger fellowship were also interested in exploring life in community. Consequently, we began to look around for guidance. We knew about Clarence Jordan's Koinonia Farm community and Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri in Switzerland, but neither of these seemed quite the right model for a house-church community in an urban setting.

In time, we learned about Reba Place Fellowship, a large and well established extended-household community in Evanston, Illinois. (1) Reba Place was the hub for a network of similar communities, most of which had grown from Mennonite roots. We began to draw on their wisdom and experience as our little house-church community slowly took shape. Reba Place sent a delegation of elders to visit us and give counsel, and I, along with several other members of our group, travelled to Evanston to see their community in action. It was my first encounter with Radical Reformation theology embodied in the flesh. I was moved not only by the community's depth of commitment (in contrast to the tepid mainline Protestant congregations I had known) but also by the gracious beauty and simplicity of their common life, the unassuming maturity and holiness of their long-time members, their candor in confronting sin and failure in the community, and their sustained commitment to hands-on service in their needy, racially mixed neighborhood. I was seeing before my eyes a church that seemed to stand in recognizable continuity with the communities that I had read about in Paul's letters, in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35, and in Bonhoeffer. …

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