Renewing the Church Starts with Learning to Love It

In recent weeks, as I’ve been preparing my paper for the upcoming “Participating in God’s Mission” conference, I have re-immersed myself in the writings of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The other day I came across a passage that caught my attention on account of both its humorous and its prophetic character. The passage is found within a letter Bonhoeffer wrote in March of 1940 to a woman who was earnestly longing for church renewal. The renewing or reforming impulse is a strong one that remains with us to this day. Descendants of the Protestant Reformation recognize that there is something right about this reforming impulse. After all, the church of the Reformation is called to be semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (“always reforming under the Word of God”). The problem, as Bonhoeffer observes below, is that semper reformanda too easily becomes separated from the secundum verbum Dei, with the result that renewal or reformation simply becomes a project subject to our own whims and personal preferences. Bonhoeffer challenges all of us who earnestly desire the renewal of the church to recognize that genuine renewal begins with learning to love the concrete church as it is and carefully attending to the voice of its living Lord which sounds forth in its midst.  Bonhoeffer writes:

“Yet right at the outset I must add that something in me protests very powerfully against all longings for reformation. In the past four hundred years and up to the most recent era, we have experienced them almost without interruption in the most varied forms; and all of them have resulted—I must add, thank God—in nothing. The one true Reformation sprang not from a so–called longing for reformation but rather from a single, newly given biblical discovery that then in and of itself—in Luther’s case, of course, in opposition to any ecclesial desire for renewal!—broke open the church and renewed it. Waiting for reformation has as little to do with the Reformation itself as the Reform Councils with the Diets of Worms and Augsburg. Please allow me to put it even more clearly. The liveliest longings for reformation in our church in the last four hundred years have always resembled the not particularly respectful intention of fashionably dressing up one’s elderly mother so as not to have to be ashamed of her. I do not wish to dispute that there is also a true desire for renewal in the church, but we easily distinguish between true and false by asking whether we are more concerned about doing something new or about Jesus Christ. In the genuine desire for a renewed church, one’s own wishes and the demands that one is placing on the church give way to the unselfconscious accommodation to the church as it actually is, to love for it precisely in its brokenness, and to the orientation of one’s entire thought and action to the word of Christ alone and indeed within the concrete congregation. How I wish the church to be is as unimportant as my thoughts about how I wish my mother to be. The essential point is that it is my church and that I place myself entirely in its service just as it is. I hope I am making myself clear. As willingly as we must hear and ponder the pia desideria [pious wishes] that emerge from the church, so we must necessarily remain down–to–earth and realize that the fulfillment of even numerous pia desideria will not renew the church; rather, such renewal comes from an entirely different dimension and claims us anew and quite differently, not wishing any longer but participating.” [1]

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, ed. Mark S. Brocker, trans. Lisa E. Dahill, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 16 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 37n2.

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