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understandings deeper By James Nieman CENTRIFUGAL: BEING A PUBLIC CHURCH

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among ELCA theologians on the challenging issues of our day. Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.), edits the series on behalf of the ELCA seminary presidents.

Every year I get to speak with prospective students. These folks aren’t just interested in seminary but have fi nished the application process and are ready to attend. I want to hear what they’re thinking, especially why they feel called to a life that some might consider unpopular or nerdy.

If you heard these conversations it would lift your heart. Their faith isn’t casual but committed. They’re willing to endure the changes and sacrifi ces needed to prepare for lifelong ministry. Even with diffi culties ahead, they’re energetic and excited to begin. But they’re also worried.

Just like when I was in seminary more than 30 years ago, many of these students are still formed by fi ne institutions: church camps, campus ministries, youth programs, mission trips and home congregations. What’s diff erent today is what they’ve done since college.

Some lived in intentional faith communities with other believers. Others volunteered a year or more here or abroad to off er witness and outreach. Still others worked in serving agencies or nonprofi ts, caring for those with complex, burdened lives. All this comes from their deep faith in Jesus and a desire to share God’s gracious love. But that’s also what rouses their worry. In various forms, they raise with me a lingering concern: “I want to keep serving in these ways—but is our church prepared for that kind of ministry?”

They’re not alone in wondering. To be clear, it’s not about trying to replace ministry with social services or political passions, but asking where our church’s witness is aimed.

42 JUNE 2016

What does it mean for us to engage a world beyond our fellow believers? How might our faith be more outwardly directed, more “centrifugal,” if you will? These concerns explain the growing interest in being a “public church.”

That phrase, in use since the early 1980s, emphasizes the church’s direction and purpose. A public church doesn’t stand apart from the wounds of our world but fully shares that plight to bring an alternative word of lasting life. It involves disciples equipped for a more credible, gracious, eff ective witness to the gospel in the many areas of life they encounter. A public church is always on the move.

Our public way derives from Scripture If you think there’s nothing new about that, you’d be right and wrong. Of course, it’s how Scripture itself depicts the church’s mission— being sent to every nation. And we need not recall only heroic scenes like Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16ff ) to get the idea. When Jesus taught his followers to be salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16) and prayed that, through their unity, “the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21), you see the same centrifugal course of the church across the ages.

Indeed, ekklesia, the Greek word we translate as “church,” means “called from”—being called by God from ordinary life into a new assembly as a sign to the wider world. Our church not only has an outward direction to its work but a public character at its core.

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