“The problem with the PC(USA) is this: Our ‘Everything Decently and in Order’ sign is choking off the ‘Reformed and Always Reforming’ sign,” Stacy Johnson told 600 participants gathered at First Church, Dallas, at the second annual NEXT Church conference.
Johnson, a lawyer turned theologian — presently professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary — delivered the opening address at a leadership conference organized by a group that sees itself in “a reformation moment for the church.”
Johnson delivered an exposition on the resurrection after first taking participants on an encounter with the cross. He began by quoting I Cor. 1:18: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Two ways to live
Johnson said there are two ways to live: one following the logic of survival — which recognizes that we are perishing and, therefore, will do whatever it takes to survive — and one following the way of Jesus by taking up the cross. The church seems to be caught up in the hopeless effort to save itself, fighting to survive. Understandably so, because “one thing we know,” he said, is that the church has been taken captive to a “cultural and generational tsunami” that requires adaptive change. And the primary adaptation needed is the one people and organizations instinctively resist: the way of the cross.
Indeed, the need for adaptive change in the church arises not merely from quoting statistics of shrinkage — although Johnson did rehearse some of those numbers. Adaptive change is required by a more faithful reading of the gospel itself, he asserted.
Further, he added, “We always stand somewhere between reform and revolution. The Kingdom of God is about revolution. The revolution is God’s revolution. We’re not about bringing revolution. But our reform needs to be in service of God’s revolution.”
So how shall the church live into such revolution and reform?
Johnson offered three keys: poetry, prayer and prophetic witness.
No, he wasn’t advocating speaking in meter and rhyme. Rather, given that the Greek word, poesis, actually means “to make or create,” Johnson said that believers need to rediscover the biblical texts that teach us about God not by forming sweeping theological categories but by painting metaphors and weaving stories. “A poetic theology is a creative theology, a constructive theology. It’s about taking the gospel and making it sing again,” he affirmed.
Reform results when we become a people in prayer, he declared. But, not the kind of prayer that tries to arm-wrestle God to match our interests, but the kind that echoes Jesus’ words, “not my will but yours be done” — the kind that invites us to think, he said, like Gerald May, who taught us, “It is when our beliefs about God crumble that we finally may stop worshiping our beliefs … and begin to worship God.”
Finally, at the heart of the Christian religion are the passion for justice and righteousness that stand so central to Israel’s prophetic tradition, he said. “And Jesus stands right in the heart of that tradition.” Johnson declared that his great hope for the church is that so many young people today “don’t care about liberal religion or about conservative religion but about prophetic religion.”
And, true to the prophetic message of Jesus’ ministry, the prophetic message assures that the world is the arena of God’s acting, and that God has a future focus. Resurrection faith says, “There’s more to come.” Or quoting Tony Campolo’s oft-quoted line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”