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One Church, Many Tribes

Newsletter No. 18

Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus, and the creator and host of Breaking Ground. From 2016 to 2019 she directed The Philanthropy Roundtable‘s Character Initiative, a program seeking to help foundations and business leaders re-envision the nature and shape of formative institutions needed for social and moral renewal in the United States. Her path-breaking guidebook, The Fabric of Character, was published in 2019. Anne is also a 2020 Emerson Fellow, a Trinity Forum Senior Fellow, and a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity for the bulk of their citizens. She has published widely, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

It’s no secret that we live in a secular age. Richard John Neuhaus coined an evocative term in the 1980s, “the naked public square,” which cemented the loss of enchantment in a discourse increasingly obsessed with utility and politics, slipping away from questions of moral cohesion or a dialogue with transcendent truth claims.

But this remains a relatively recent phenomenon. There are those still alive today who remember a time when major newspapers published sermons of social consequence as a weekly matter of course, when magazines like Time honored theologians alongside Nobel Prize winners and heads of state.

Here at Breaking Ground, we don’t envision that religion as historically taken for granted will recover any kind of mainstream cultural currency, nor are we advocating that it necessarily should. But given the upsurge in existential reflection and moral casting about this 2020, it seemed worthwhile to turn to a source of wisdom and social literature that rarely gets a global hearing—namely, the preached Word of God.

Each week, we are going to publish a curated selection of sermons past and present from four distinct theological traditions within Christianity: The Catholic Church, the Black Church, the Anabaptist tradition, and the Reformed tradition. In so choosing these four streams, we are not seeking to further fragment Christ’s body but rather to challenge the various ligaments to stretch in appreciating one another’s saints and different lines of sight. We also recognize that there are some homiletic gems whose roots will span multiple streams, and that there are others that will slip between the cracks altogether. We will do our best to give every consecrated Word a home and a family, and are open to adding one or two more canopies as the treasure chests open up.

That said, our reasoning for founding the project on these four streams is as follows:

Both the Catholic Church and the Black Church are intact categories, each with a rich set of their own social teachings. While Catholics may not be known for their preaching given the centrality of the Eucharist, there remains in this tradition an extraordinary body of Christian social thought that draws on two thousand years of discerning the signs of the times with the help of God’s people and the Holy Spirit. From papal encyclicals to the writings of the canonized, the living compendium casts a bright and non-individualistic light on the alternative moral imagination required to counter the pressuring forces of the various pagan power struggles of a given era, our own not excepting.

As for the Black Church, some argue that it is here, within this scarred and spiritually vital tradition, that hope for a torn and tired country is living. I would join them. As I have argued in other pages, it is my conviction that the Black Church has been the leading agent of grace in American history—and yeast in Christ’s church at large. What can the whole church learn from signature voices speaking from a heritage oppressed but not crushed, persecuted but not abandoned?

Anabaptists, for their part, also carry a prophetic heritage that has shaped some of the most history-shaking movements of the last century, including the social gospel and civil rights movements. The tradition’s communal derivatives—the Mennonites, the Amish, the Bruderhof, and others—are less concerned with theologically learned pulpits than they are with living out a Christian counterresponse to the prevailing winds, serving as a witness and a communal icon of the now-and-not-yet kingdom of God. In an age where words so easily become weapons and sermons don’t automatically change behavior, what words the Anabaptists have used to forge some stunning models of shalom are instructive for the rest of us—a living tradition of Christian ethics whose communities of peace remain a powerful witness to our world.

Finally, it is the Magisterial Reformers who lifted the sermon to the prominence that Protestants take for granted today. There are many tributaries emanating from this stream, from transformationist to Two-Kingdom to the looser adjective of “evangelical,” but the core conviction is that the well-preached Word can change the hearer, penetrating bone and spirit, and thereby change the world.

Please join us on this journey. As Breaking Ground’s publisher, Cardus, says often, “the [biblical story] is not a private story reserved for the private delights of Sunday worshippers—it is a public story that touches the world. It is public truth—and it changes everything it touches.”

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We are grateful to the many curators helping make this vision a reality, including Duke Divinity School’s Office of Black Church Studies, Drs. Myles Werntz and David Cramer, Drs. Jessica Joustra and Bill DeJong, Fr. Dcn. Andrew Bennett, and others. We look forward to welcoming reader recommendations too, with guidelines here:

Sermons will qualify if they are:

  • in vivid, clear response to a large crisis of the land (past or present); discerning of “the signs of the times” in which preached;
  • creedal—in agreement and accord with the trinitarian nature of the Nicene Creed;
  • empowering of distinctive Christian engagement of civic life and the public square;
  • prophetic and potentially life-transforming, and taking more cues from biblical wisdom on questions of justice than the reigning paradigms of our present landscape; and