by Sally A. Brown
Whatever our assessment of the musical merits of the hymn “I Come to the
Garden Alone,” it could be said to be the anthem of 21st-century
Anglo-Protestant spirituality. Frankly, meeting Jesus in the garden alone
can be attractive when coming to church means dealing with the annoying
range of personalities, theological and political opinions, habits, and
tastes that God has seen fit to call together as the church. (Although
recent defenders of the hymn’s theology point out that it is intended to
evoke the resurrection appearance to Mary in the burial garden on Easter
morning, the hymn’s text omits Jesus’ commissioning of Mary to go back to
the gathered community of disciples to preach the good news, thus severing
personal encounter with Jesus from its ecclesial context.)
Sally A. Brown
It may be no accident that, in these recent decades marked by controversy
in every major denomination, we have also seen Protestants turning in
unprecedented numbers to spiritual training centers to learn classic
individual spiritual practices of silence, contemplative prayer, lectio
divina, and journaling. How quickly we forget that those who developed
these disciplines assumed the backdrop of a life of daily corporate
The people to whom we preach today are highly influenced by a culture of
individualism. Shaped by the Enlightenment “turn to the self,” as well as
by American frontier revivalism, many understand Christian spirituality in
fundamentally individualistic terms—as a matter between the self and God.
By contrast, the Reformed tradition insists, distinctively Christian
spirituality is irreducibly corporate and communal—in short,
ecclesial—spirituality. (Such an understanding of Christian
identity is already in place in many African American and Latino/a
congregations in North America, where Christian spirituality has always
been understood as fundamentally communal.) A major challenge for preachers today is to help those in our pews develop a genuinely
ecclesial sense of Christian identity and spirituality.
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How can preachers challenge tendencies, fostered by the culture at large,
toward spiritual individualism that sees congregational worship and
witness as voluntary and even optional? How can we develop a
congregation’s ecclesial sensibilities?
First, the preacher can cast an eye over recent sermons to see whether she
or he has tended to choose stories and illustrations that reinforce
individualistic images of Christian spirituality. Stories in a sermon work
analogously with the dynamics of the biblical text, grabbing the listener
by the imagination so that the pro me of the gospel is heard. But if most
stories focus on individual experience (as does much of the material
traded on preachers’ lectionary web sites these days), the cultural bias
toward individualistic spirituality is reinforced.
Preachers can expand their storytelling repertoire to include stories of
the church—the community bearing witness, the church challenged and
transformed. Congregations need to hear the story of the church through
history and around the world, as well as the congregation’s own story, or
that of a sister congregation across town.
A second strategy for developing ecclesial consciousness in the pews is by
reviving the practice of mystagogical catechesis, or preaching on the
sacraments. Such instruction was normative in the ancient church in the
Paschal season when it was urgently important to instruct Easter baptisands in their new ecclesial identity. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,
understood rightly, signify that those in the pews with us are actually
indispensable to our Christian formation.
Of course, first we may have to cut our way through a thicket of false
assumptions about the meaning of the sacraments. Baptism is too often
understood as a punctiliar act in which the taint of original sin is
expunged and individuals are branded, so to speak, so as to be sorted into
the right pile at their demise, rather than as an act that roots us in the
life of the ecclesia through identification with Christ’s death and
rising, and commissions us to ministry. The Lord’s Supper, for many, is
still a private penitential transaction between oneself and one’s God,
rather than participation in the eschatological community inaugurated in
Jesus Christ. Reclaiming the corporate dimensions of these signs and
promises breaks open their socially transformative potential.
Admittedly, preaching on the sacraments is bound to be less compelling if
these rites are only a peripheral part of congregational experience. With
interrupted worship attendance patterns more the norm than the exception
these days, quarterly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper or occasional
baptisms are often as not missed, making them a footnote to Christian
experience, rather than the font of Christian identity and ecclesial
consciousness. The sacraments remind us, especially in contentious times,
that finally we are the church with and for each other not by mutual
contract, but by virtue of a divine act and promise.
Some observers note that the as-you-like-it spirituality of the 1990s
has left many adrift, searching for ritual and community. Congregations
with a strong sense of ecclesial identity will be living signs of God’s
redemptive work and profoundly good news to this generation of seekers.
Sally A. Brown both earned her Ph.D. from and became assistant professor
of preaching and worship at Princeton Seminary in 2001. An ordained
Presbyterian minister, she taught preaching and worship at Lancaster
Theological Seminary, where she was also dean of the chapel, before
joining the Princeton faculty.