Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Bonhoeffer’s Warning

In the late 30’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer came back to America for a second time.  The seminary in Germany was outlawed under a Nazi regime. This young German pastor had  himself become a member of the Resistance. He was informed by German authorities he must report for military duty.  And so Bonhoeffer sailed for New York. But within 24 hours of his arrival, he faced huge doubts.

Bonhoeffer was torn between the safety and freedom he experienced on this side of the Atlantic, and the need to be back with his brothers and sisters in the Confessing Church in Germany. In his biography, Eric Metaxas describes the turmoil Bonhoeffer felt.  Bonhoeffer wandered New York like a ghost.  He saw himself wasting days, perhaps weeks.  He felt himself a coward.  He ached for something of God, a word.

In an earlier visit (1930), Bonhoeffer found too much of the preaching intellectually thin and inconsequential, sermons reduced to parenthetical remarks about newspaper events. Attending a well known, liberal church, in the summer of 1939, he knew as soon as the worship began he was in the wrong place.  It was the empty preaching that, in particular, set him off.  He would later write in his diary: “The whole thing was a respectable, self indulgent, self satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God.  Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference…I have no doubt that one day the storm will blow with full force on this religious hand-out.”  After twenty six more days of doubts, Bonhoeffer left New York and set his face toward Berlin.  He would eventually go to the gallows built by Hitler and his regime.

I read these words wondering what Bonhoeffer would find today in our culture.  No doubt he would still find too many sermons that are little more than parenthetical remarks about newspaper events, worship self indulgent, and most all of it impacting nothing deeper than the emotions. He might still ache for a word.  He would also probably warn us that our times are perilous as well, and if we do not awaken, a storm will blow with full force.  The need for a clear word from God, a word that builds disciples, is more necessary than ever.

In a new book, The Missional Church in Perspective, the authors note that developing and deepening the Christian identity of every disciple has to be at the forefront of the contemporary church’s focus more than ever. The church cannot witness credibly to or participate effective in God’s mission without faithful discipleship. Just as in Bonheoffer’s day, the culture can “no longer be assumed to contribute constructively to Christian formation, and few families are equipped to do so. Thus, Christian identity must be cultivated intentionally, patiently, and comprehensively by congregations and other Christian communities.”

A big part of this goes back to preaching that takes serious the necessary preparation—contemplative exegesis as Peterson puts it.  Studying carefully, listening deeply for the Spirit to speak through the necessary exegesis. If the church doesn’t step up to this, the community of faith will continue its slide towards thinness, ill equipped to face the spiritual war we are in.

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