2011 Calling Congregations Conference

House for All Sinners and Saints is a community of theologians of the cross. Of such theologians, Martin Luther famously argued they were made “by living, nay by dying and by being damned.” It is such a belief that informs HFASS’ ethos of “anti-excellence, pro-participation.” We have become the church we are, not through pursuing programs, but by living, dying, and yes, sometimes being damned, through the messy, unclean, and ecstatically wonderful task of being a church of producers, not consumers; participants, not spectators; failures, not models.

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Becoming a Church of the Cross

By: Matthew Nickoloff
October 06, 2011

House for All Sinners and Saints is a community of theologians of the cross. Of such theologians, Martin Luther famously argued they were made “by living, nay by dying and by being damned.” It is such a belief that informs HFASS’ ethos of “anti-excellence, pro-participation.” We have become the church we are, not through pursuing programs, but by living, dying, and yes, sometimes being damned, through the messy, unclean, and ecstatically wonderful task of being a church of producers, not consumers; participants, not spectators; failures, not models.

It is always surprising to me how many people look to HFASS to be an inspiration or a model for their own church development aspirations. Because I like to believe that looking at HFASS is a lot like looking at the cross. Which is to say, looking at folly and foolishness as a source of wisdom; looking at brokenness as a balm of healing. HFASS does not have a list of programs, or a carefully scripted paradigm for “being a new kind of church.” What I think makes HFASS what it is is the fact that we work with what and who we have and are. As Luther describes the theologian of the cross, we “call a thing what it is,” and believe that, through the Gospel, God has provided us what we need for ministry through the gifts of the people God has gathered. Saints and sinners all.
So when we attended FTE’s July retreat on Vocation CARE, we were faced with what we Lutherans claim to love most: a paradox. Because as we were led through the steps of “creating space,” “asking self-awakening questions,” “reflecting theologically,” and “enacting what is possible,” we kept being surprised by how we were not so much learning a new way of being church, as we were being given the gift of a mirror with which to articulate what the Spirit has brought out of the treasures of our members. Which is not to say that HFASS knows it all. But it was, I believe, an affirmation that, in the post-“church growth” era, to be a new kind of church, one must forego programs and the promise of what we don’t have, in favor of what is already present. Becoming a new kind of church, I think, means to live Augustine’s famous Eucharistic admonition: “become what you are.”

“In reality, the people in the pews, by virtue of their created humanity and their re-creation in baptism, are already brimming with visions of ministry.”

Which is to say, if there is anything I am learning as the intern at HFASS, it is that pastors and leaders need training, not in acquiring new skills and innovative outlooks, but rather, in unlearning the programs of glory which always see the future as something somewhere else, and then to learn to trust the people present in their pews, right here, today. In reality, the people in the pews, by virtue of their created humanity and their re-creation in baptism, are already brimming with visions of ministry. They are just waiting for a leader who knows how to lead, not by asking for more, but by “giving away” power so that in the end transformation can be a shared effort. By way of example, take a more controversial aspect of HFASS’ emergent identity. We are often surprised that, around Denver, we are known as “the gay church.” This can feel ironic, because we did not come to include the term “queer-inclusive” in our self-description as a way to market ourselves to a population “out there.” Rather, I’ve been told, from the beginning HFASS has seen the diversity of gender and sexualities as part of the gifts already present in its midst. We do not, for example, serve meals at Rainbow Alley, a drop-in center for GLBTQ youth, because it somehow brings us closer to some abstract goal of “inclusivity.” We simply are a community that already includes these folks. As theologians of the cross, we call a thing what it is. And so, we simply follow the lead of Christ’s call in becoming more who we are.

While filling out a three-month internship report recently, I was asked, “what are you learning about leadership?” I wanted to simply write, “that church is made by living and by dying, nay, by being damned.” Because as a leader-in-training, what HFASS is teaching me is both how to live, and how to die. To live, inspired and empowered by the gifts that already exist, teeming all around me in the rich soil of a community that is not afraid to recognize with gratitude the gifts we have already been given, and to call them forth, recognizing them as vocations of ministry of all shapes and sizes. It’s messy. It’s foolish. It’s not entirely safe, or guaranteed. But it’s joyful. And it’s full of surprises!

And to die, learning to lead by learning to let go - and to trust that all the vocational gifts in the church do not belong to me, that indeed, even when things so frightfully wrong, even to the point where it seems damnation in the eyes of the world awaits, then, even there, especially there, God is creating the cruciform shape out of which to raise into our awareness the calling, and the path, by which faithfulness to the Gospel is to be found. It’s messy. It’s foolish. It’s not entirely safe. But it’s got resurrection written all over it. And indeed, it is full of blessed surprises.

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Matthew Nickoloff is currently the Vicar/Intern at House for All Sinners and Saints (June 2011-June 2012) and am affiliated with Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS). Matthew holds an M.Div from Duke and a Masters of Sacred Theology from LTSS; he currently blog at duringtheworld.blogspot.com. Matthew is a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA.

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Photo by Matthew Nickoloff

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