Adapted and reprinted from 'The Last Word and the Word After That', with permission of Jossey-Bass.
After dinner, Ruth and I did the dishes while Father Scott worked on a fire in the fireplace. Ruth put a pot of water on the stovetop for tea and then leaned back against the counter with the drying towel in hand as I scraped Father Scott's soup pot, which had some noodles burned to the bottom.
"I was intrigued by what Millie said in the van," I said, also leaning back against the counter, the pot under my left arm, my right arm scrubbing with a scouring pad. "She said you were like a church to each other."
"Yes, dear," Ruth replied, "that's a peculiar little belief of ours. We call it 'deep ecclesiology,' There are so many wild ideas associated with the word church. It's like barnacles stuck on the hull of a boat, or maybe like those noodles burned on the bottom of your pot there. For some people, church is an institution of a modern society, right alongside government and the media and art and science and business and education, servicing the public or a segment of the public. For others, it's a vendor of religious goods and services, servicing the needs and wants of customers."
I finished rinsing out the pot, which I then handed to Ruth. She continued speaking as she dried the pot, inside and out: "Deep ecclesiology for us means that we honor the church in all its forms, from the most historic and hierarchical forms of church-Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox-through the middle range of more congregational or local Protestant churches to the low range of storefront churches and house churches and even below that."
"Below that?" I asked.
Ruth put the dry pot on the counter and turned back toward me. "Some forms of church don't last centuries or decades or even years. There are very ephemeral forms of church. Such as you and me, here at this table, as Jesus said: 'wherever two or three are gathered in my name.' According to deep ecclesiology, we're churching right now."
"So for you, this is church," I said.
"I don't mean that in an exclusive, Protestant sense. You see, our little circle here is post-Protestant. Protestants argued and argued about who had the right form of church. We're not doing that-we're not saying that the only valid form is the completely unstructured, ephemeral, spontaneous church, any more than I'd say the Presbyterian form that I love is the only legitimate form. Not at all, dear. That would just be more Protestant pride at finally getting it right. That would be a lateral conversion, from one form of fundamentalism to another. I think Neo calls it the 'church of the last detail.' That's not it at all. We're each very involved in a very conventional congregation, and there are things the conventional congregation can do that really need doing. So as I said, we value the church in all its forms-historic churches, congregational churches, megachurches, minichurches, microchurches, liquid churches, quantum churches, virtual churches, and everything in between. They all have their job to do. Lord knows, the problems our world faces are big enough that no single form of church can address them all."
Ruth added, "Not that the only purpose for the church is to address the problems of the world. I think we'd all say that the purpose of the church-at least, of the post-Protestant church in our way of thinking-is to spiritually form people to love God and others and themselves so that they can live life to the full in God's kingdom, in the way of Jesus. We want to change the world, but that requires people who learn to be the revolution they want to see in the world."
I was still stuck on the word post-Protestant. I simply repeated the word, inviting Ruth to comment more. But she wasn't finished on the subject of spiritual formation.
"Yes, post-Protestant churches see everything as spiritual formation-everything worth doing, that is. Public worship is an exercise in group spiritual formation through rituals like the Eucharist and preaching. Fellowship is exercise in the spiritual practices of community. The success of a church isn't measured by the numbers who attend but by the formation of people as agents of the kingdom of God, and..."
I interrupted because I could hardly concentrate on what she was saying: "Ruth, I'm intrigued by that term post-Protestant. What do you mean by it?"
"Part of it is that we're done protesting, saying the bad guys over there have it wrong and we here in our little circle have it right. That rhetoric distracts us from spiritual formation, and besides that, it protects injustice."
Then Ruth surprised me. "Let's pray before we go out there," she said. She came and stood behind me, placed her hands on my shoulders, and after a brief pause, began to pray.
There was nothing extraordinary about the words of her prayer. But there was a kind of power there that I had rarely experienced. "Where did you learn to pray like that?" I asked.
"That wasn't me praying, Dan. It was us, praying together. It's just as Jesus said: 'when two or three agree'...This is something we've been learning: when we don't just say our prayers, and when we don't simply pray as individuals, but when we learn to pray as one, we experience things. It's the Kingdom of God, the dream of God coming true when people harmonize their wills with God's will. That was your prayer as much as mine; I was just finding words for both of us. Come on. Let's rejoin the others."