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The Dean's Perspective

Renewal of the Church: Why We Care

For the past year, I have been telling everyone who will listen that the mission of Duke Divinity School is to promote “scriptural imagination for the sake of the renewal of the church.” Our last issue of DIVINITY focused on the theme of scriptural imagination. With this issue, we turn attention to the second part of the message: renewal of the church. What does that mean, and why should we care about it here at Duke?

Many of the essays in this issue will describe the remarkable, imaginative ways that our faculty, staff, students, and alumni are working to promote church renewal. But before delving into the accounts they offer, we might do well to pause to ask why we, as a university divinity school, care about the task of renewing the church.

It is not hard to think of objections to this description of the purpose of our work—not hard, because we sometimes hear such objections voiced. Here are three of them:
(1) For a divinity school to pursue church renewal reflects a confusion of roles: the divinity school is an academic institution, not an ecclesial agency. Indeed, to focus on the church’s practices may compromise the school’s scholarly integrity and its obligation to pursue disinterested research.
(2) The church—the established institutional church as we have known it in recent generations—is hopeless; it is a dying institution that belongs to the past, not the future. To invest energy in seeking its renewal is futile.
(3) If the Divinity School cares about transforming society, its important contribution would be to train leaders for social entrepreneurship and political advocacy.

In order to understand why these objections are misguided, we need to grasp the roots of our identity and calling. Institutions such as Duke Divinity School exist, most fundamentally, to interpret the word of God for the people of God. And God’s revelation, first to Israel and then to the wider world, has always aimed at the formation of a people—a community that embodies God’s healing and transforming power. That is why the Letter to the Ephesians can remarkably declare that “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” is that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:9–10 RSV). The wisdom of God cannot be discerned through disinterested scholarly inquiry. It is most deeply grasped through participation in the life of the community that God calls and shapes. This has long been true, from Israel led out of Egypt to the Jerusalem church after Pentecost to the vibrant churches of the Global South today. And that is why the task given not only to apostles and prophets but also to pastors and teachers is “building up the body of Christ [i.e., the church], until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:12–13).

If the church in North America seems listless and discouraged, then that highlights the urgency of our vocation in the Divinity School to teach the Word faithfully so that God’s breath/spirit can reanimate the dry bones strewn about the landscape. But it is an illusion that such reanimation can occur apart from the church, whether through other sorts of social or political institutions or through the enlightenment of disparate individuals. God, for reasons known only to himself, has chosen to create a community of “living stones ... built into a spiritual house” in order to “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

The church may indeed take on fresh creative forms as God’s Spirit works among us. Our task at Duke Divinity School is partly to imagine and to encourage such creative institutional forms. But that reinforces the declaration that what we are seeking is the renewal of the church, the community of people called together and addressed by God's word: "Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:10).