I was sitting in a café with a few teammates across from one of Berlin’s 1700 bridges. As we waited for our currywurst, we listened to the tolling of cathedral bells, resonating and disbursing into a complex and fascinating mist of harmonic overtones. Hundreds of people in the neighborhood were shuffling into the numerous cathedrals in the kiez, responding to the ringing of the hour for Sunday morning worship to begin. Despite the description of the city by one of our mission’s leaders as “maybe the most post-Christian, post-modern and liberal city on the continent of Europe,” people were dutifully streaming into the cathedrals – well, those few that have not been ‘repurposed.’ Thought there is little evidence that any form of “biblical world-view” holds much currency in the broader culture, the level of public participation leads many Berliners to take umbrage at being described as “post-Christian.” Appearing to turn Grace Davie’s thesis on its head, this indeed seems to be a form of “belonging without believing.”
My colleagues and I share some particular values: We are passionate Jesus-followers, we take seriously the truth and power of God’s word, and believe that he will be present in our efforts – motivated both by love and obedience – to see healthy communities of faith have a transformative effect not only on their “members” but also on the broader surrounding culture. We understand that we are definitely post-something here… personally, I’d label it “post-Christendom.” The sort of vital, gospel-centered, Kingdom-minded, living and organic movement about which we dream has not yet had its day in Europe… and that which we envision involves anything but moving back to the past to recover anything from the “glory days” of “Christian Europe.”
But, as the bells tolled, I reflected on their sound and the meaning of their sound, and thought about how our dream, which we believe is a God-given calling, relates to the “state church” of Christendom, its past, present and future, and the movement of transformational communities of discipleship for which we labor.
There is, obviously, continuity of place. But there must be more that can be reclaimed from our Christian past, without re-importing (let alone re-“establishing”) distinctly unhelpful elements of “Christendom.” Yet certainly our efforts shouldn’t be seen as having “absolutely no connection” to this past… that would be naïve, presumptuous and likely offensive. But there’s no reason to feel that we are bounded by merely “reinvigorating” any sort of “system” whose time has come and, apparently, gone. So where does that leave us?
The state church (and its tendency toward “civil religion”) in our existing religious/historical context (with its skepticism toward the sorts of metanarratives that legitimated it) may be “heard” as being like the deeply resonant chiming of the church bell that permeates the neighborhood. The bell does more than sound a “big note” (though, if one were not listening intently, they might think there is only “one note” being sounded, repeatedly and incessantly). The tolling bell sends overtones (other than the “big note” of the bell) in every direction, frequencies which can be ignored, clashed with, or used to harmonize. I swear at one point I could even catch my water-glass at the café table affected by the mix of sound-waves. Musicians understand that musical sounds are much more than tones… they have entire “profiles.”
So what does this tell us about ministry in a “post-Christian” culture (that has become so, in some ways, because of the historical activity of these churches) which still manages an element of defensiveness when accused of being “secular” (because of so many church-goers and ministers)?
Listen to these church bells everywhere. Look at all the people that come into these old buildings when they ring in the hour for worship! Could a key to working with (or not working against) these historical churches lie in finding ‘harmonizing overtones’ with the tolling of the cathedral bells that, while not being that “same note,” still harmonizes with and builds upon it?
Is it possible that unchurched/secular people “resonate” in some ways with the “overtones” from the ringing of the “church bells”? If so, can we figure how we might “riff” off/within these overtones so that in such a way that our “soul,” our commitment to the gospel, comes through?
We are participants in a new approach to ministry in urban centers that’s called “Charrette.” Please check this out – I’ll share more about it in upcoming posts. This is not the latest-and-greatest “model” for “contemporary urban ministry”… but admitting that is not the same as seeing anything “contextual” as a one-off, ad hoc response.
Perhaps the values and practices of Charrette as practiced in Berlin could become a new sound, a new bell tolling in the public square, echoing and resonating throughout Europe, creating opportunities to harmonize in various cities. Such harmonious frequencies might echo and stimulate new resonant overtones, creating “new missional sounds” both in cities where we serve as well as in Berlin.