Dwight Zscheile spoke to a crowded room in mid-November with all the grace and warmth you’d imagine from a Minnesotan priest. At the first night of this year’s Paddock Lectures, Dean Kurt Dunkle enthusiastically introduced the speaker as a prime example of the heart of the lecture series: “Scholarship and doing something useful with it.” Despite the fact that there was not an empty seat in the house—indeed, latecomers had to form a small standing section in the back—Zscheile navigated the lecture and discussion with such charisma and ease that it felt more like a small seminar class than a presentation.
Zscheile’s main focus was how the Church should be evolving to keep up with today’s significant cultural changes, what he called “The Great Disruption”; the intersection of new communications technology (namely the internet) and a cultural shift towards subjective truths has totally reordered the structure of many people’s lives, with common-ground public institutions like neighborhood associations, labor unions, and church finding themselves decreasingly relevant. Zscheile acknowledged that he is far from the only person to notice this decline, but encouraged the conversation to focus less on strategies to woo back younger generations and more on a reexamination of the very nature of the role church can play in those people’s lives. Rather than dress up our current offerings to seem more palatable to millenials, he suggested, we should look to the roots of Christianity to see if there’s something better we can be offering.
Generally speaking, Zscheile’s proposal for addressing this shift was to move away from evangelism based on The Great Commission, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20), and embrace the Lukan model of going out into the world two by two, with neither “purse or bag or sandals “(Luke 10). An admittedly more vulnerable model, it is predicated on finding people in their own lives rather than creating a hub and drawing them to you. Zscheile pointed to soccer games and brew-pubs as examples of places where people seeking community can be found.
As the lecture turned to discussion, the room bubbled up with questions about the application of these theories, usually with 3 hands in the air at a time. There seemed to be little debate as to the existence and nature of the problem, but each proposed solution opened up a different vein of skepticism from someone else. One questioner worried that too many of the discussed strategies favored the middle-class while closing access to poorer people. Another expressed discomfort with the historical intertwining of evangelism and colonialism. The room filled with murmurs of agreement (and a few exasperated laughs) when someone finally brought up the financial sustainability of a decentralized model of church. Yet, for all the passion, the disagreements were amicable, and it was clear that the discussion would continue beyond General’s walls.
In closing remarks, Zscheile laughingly acknowledged the size of the task at hand, but seemed undeterred. “Going into the ministry is really countercultural,” he exclaimed. “The only reason you do it is because God called you.”
Attendees may have emptied onto the streets of Chelsea with more questions than answers, but Zscheile never claimed to have easy solutions anyhow; it seems the evolution of the Church will, by definition, be a group effort.
Written by Matthew Puckett
Photograph by Diana Leavengood