Last weekend, I missed my ten year reunion at Taylor University. The following article is published in the Fall 2008 issue of Metanoia, an admissions publication for Taylor. In the article, I reflect that when I was a student at Taylor I grew familiar with the practices theologian John Howard Yoder argues in Body Politics are key to church health.
Taylor has about 1800 students and was named the #1 Baccalaureate College (Midwest) in this year's US News and World Report Best Colleges. My wife Amy and I returned to teach Christian Educational Ministries at Taylor for the 2005-2006, and 2006-2007 school years.
I recommended Yoder's Body Politics at my post: Best book on ecclesiology I read this year.
I recently also recommended a book for people interested in ministering to college students: Outstanding book about college students; Book Review: I Once Was Lost by Everts and Schaupp
Having written this a few months ago, my question today is: How do we help adults to experience community if they have never had experiences of community when they were younger? I reflect on the classroom aspect of this in the post Education in the Local Church: Taylor, Willimon, Storey, Niebuhr, and Groome but certainly there is much more to this topic.
I have written a 100 page paper on John Howard Yoder's Missional Ecclesiology. I will post it sometime.
Pastor and theology professor declares: “Everything I needed to know about the church I learned at Taylor.”
By Andy Rowell
July 10, 2008
The six most important things you need to know about Christian community that you learn at Taylor:
1. It is not good for a person to be alone.
2. Small groups for Bible study and prayer are a good thing.
3. Worship should include hugs, fun, challenge to the mind, and passionate expression.
4. Meals should be eaten with friends and include good conversation.
5. Life in Christian community involves regular conflict resolution.
6. Service is worth doing.
I have been doing quite a bit of research and writing on the practices of the church for my Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) coursework at Duke University Divinity School this year. Before coming to Duke, my wife Amy and I were Visiting Instructors of Christian Educational Ministries for two years at Taylor. We are both Taylor graduates (1998). In the process of doing my research, I have really enjoyed the work of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-1997). In his little 80-page book Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (1992), Yoder describes five important practices of the early church. He suggests that they have a great impact on the world when they are practiced by the church. I noticed that my formation in many of these practices had come through my experience as a student at Taylor. Meanwhile, I have met various Taylor alumni during our time in Vancouver, British Columbia and now here in North Carolina. I regularly notice in these people a deep love for Christian community.
My hypothesis is that Taylor University alumni have a hunger for Christian community. They have tasted it at Taylor and their stomachs grumble until they find it in their post-Taylor lives. Taylor students get a taste of all five of the practices that John Howard Yoder suggests are critical to the functioning of the Christian community. Because of how they have been formed at Taylor, Taylor alumni tend to be outstanding participants in their churches.
I believe Taylor University instills six principles of Christian community life in its students that prepare them for later service in the local church.
First, Taylor students learn that it is not good for a person to be alone. At Taylor, all freshmen and sophomores live on campus. Most juniors and seniors do too. Usually, if they live off-campus, they do so because they want the opportunity to form a different kind of community. I think of the hospitable community of curry-cooking missionary kids and international students who inhabited the Soup House when I was at Taylor. There are not many living arrangements at Taylor that allow a person to isolate themselves. Typically, students share bathrooms with one another. Sometimes you keep quiet to allow others to get studying done. At other times, the people nearby function as your ever-ready means for a study break. In this enforced immersion into close-living quarters, you learn that life is better when lived in close proximity to other human beings.
When I was a student at Taylor, there was someone at the end of the hall on my floor who watched a lot of television and played a lot of video games by himself. We found out later he was clinically depressed. A number of us sensed that there was something wrong. We would knock on his door, strike up conversations with him, invite him to do go to dinner with us, and include him in our activities. This love, and that is what it was, made a difference in his life. His habits began to change from instinctively flipping on the TV and flopping on the couch to peeking in our rooms to see what we were up to. His life changed. He ended up organizing in 1995 the first Tonight We Ride (motorcycle themed open house) on Second West Wengatz. As a professor, I visited the 2007 version.
Today at Taylor the critique of technology isolation is organized on some floors as a voluntary week-long “technology fast” from video games and TV. The Taylor culture instills the truth that activities with others (taking walks, playing Frisbee, jamming on musical instruments, pick-up basketball, intramurals, taking road trips, and lip-syncing) are better than sitting in front of the TV. You learn that doing something social in a mixed group of women and men (i.e. “pick-a-dates”) is fun regardless of who someone on your floor set you up with.
John Howard Yoder urges churches to recover the value of every person in the congregation, “The Fullness of Christ.” The apostle Paul wrote “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don't need you!’ . . . God has put the body together” (1 Corinthians 12:21, 24). Taylor alumni get the fact that Christian community is about investing in people. Taylor alumni, I suggest, (with no empirical evidence to support it), are more likely to resist isolating technology, initiate social activities, and pursue relationships than other people. They are less likely to believe that wealth, gadgets and fame are the key to happiness.
Second, Taylor students learn that small groups for Bible study and prayer are a good thing. When I was at Taylor I participated in wing small groups, Senior-Freshmen small groups, Christian Educational Ministry small groups, and Baseball team small groups – sometimes having three different meetings per week. Each year in the fall there was some pressure by the PA’s and Discipleship Assistant on the wing to get involved in a wing small group. “Come on. Sign up. It is good for you. Dude, are you going to be in a small group? Be in mine.” In practice, some people decided to be in other small groups than the wing small groups. Others signed up but rarely made it because “it is a busy week.” Others just said, “No, that’s not my thing.” But at least there was some expectation that small groups should be the normal practice of growing Christians.
In this way, almost every Taylor student had both good and not-so-good small group experiences. They had experience in rich, engaging, fascinating, challenging, and caring groups. And they had experience in boring and legalistic ones.
Excellent small groups correspond closely to what Yoder calls “The Rule of Paul,” – the procedure outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. Everyone should have the opportunity to share. Speech that improves, encourages and consoles, called by Paul “prophecy,” should be given priority. The other members of the group should “weigh” what has been said.
Having been involved in small groups at Taylor, alumni understand the beauty, care and insight of small groups. They understand what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 14. Upon graduating, most students have spent more time in small groups than much older people. No wonder so many Taylor grads end up as small group leaders in their churches.
Third, Taylor students learn that worship should include hugs, fun, challenge to the mind, and passionate expression. At Taylor, worship in chapel is voluntary (though expected). Because there is no taking attendance, there is a feeling that the people in the chapel on a given day have chosen to be here. They have come because they want to worship. They want to learn. They want to be part of this community.
Students sit with their friends and when they arrive, they give each other hugs, hand slaps, fist-pounds, and pats on the back. They rowdily cheer when the president is introduced to speak. They jokingly boo when other schools are mentioned from the podium and jokingly cheer when their dorm is mentioned. They sing loud. They expect speakers to challenge them and inspire them from the Scriptures.
Yoder says that the early church participants were bonded together as a family. Other loyalties and obligations related to social class and race were diminished because of their common connection to Jesus. He calls this “Baptism and the New Humanity” citing Galatians 3:27-28, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is this joy that Taylor alumni bring with them when they seek to make their church communities places of warmth and welcome. They warmly welcome new people and embrace old friends. They celebrate great music. They are strong supporters of their pastors who they expect will challenge and inspire them from the Scriptures.
Fourth, Taylor students learn that meals should be eaten with friends and include good conversation. At Taylor, eating is an event. You don’t just grab a sandwich in your room. If you eat, you go to the Dining Commons. This involves a hike there for that purpose. And since it is a project, an outing, you do it with others. You make the trek over from your dorm, go through the line and find a place to sit. In the process, you invite people who look to be alone if they want to grab a seat with your group. If you’re alone, you look for a familiar face and gesture and learn to courageously say, “Can I eat with you guys?” to which the answer is almost invariably “yes” unless the meal has been planned as a special meeting or study session. Furthermore, Taylor students get accustomed to booking meals with people they look forward to conversing with. “I can’t talk now because I have got to run to class. But can you do lunch on Thursday? What about Monday dinner?”
Day after day, week after week, of meals with friends, builds the habit that meals with others is what happy people do. Sure, every once in a while, you get stuck eating alone, with not a familiar face in sight. But this is the unfortunate exception which instills in you the determination to be more intentional and strategic in the future. It is no wonder then that Taylor graduates are the people who say to others after church – “hey, do you all have lunch plans? Anyone want to run to Panera?” Or, hey, “I can’t talk today. We’ve got to get our kids home for naps. But do you want to do coffee sometime? Or maybe you all can come over Friday night for dinner. ”
Yoder writes that another practice of the early church is that “Disciples Break Bread Together.” Yoder points out that what we call today “Communion” or “Eucharist” or “Lord’s Supper” was surely a meal in the early church. Though this subject has a complicated history with debates between Catholics and Protestants about the meaning of this practice, it is can at least be acknowledged that eating together, then and now, is most often done with family. Sharing a table is one way of opening up our lives to others. From hundreds of significant conversations at meal time over four years, Taylor alumni understand that God works when we sit and eat with other people.
Fifth, Taylor students learn that life in Christian community involves regular conflict resolution. In Taylor’s “Life Together Covenant” Matthew 18:15-18 is suggested as the model confrontation procedure. John Howard Yoder calls this “Binding and Loosing” (Matthew 18:18). If you have a problem with what someone else has done, you are supposed to talk to them about it. If you are unsatisfied with how this conversation goes, you are to enlist the help of someone else to help you two see if you can come to a mutual understanding of the issue. For example, PA’s and Discipleship Assistants in men’s dorms are often involved in conversations trying to keep pranks from spiraling down from fun into revenge. When I was at Taylor, we jokingly called the Matthew 18 confrontation process “care-fronting,” as in, “if he does not quit playing that music loud, there may be the need to care-front him about it.” To put it in biblical terms, Taylor students are familiar with the delicate task of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
I don’t think we can underestimate the collective expectation that even in Christian community conflict resolution will be necessary and regular. Taylor alumni do not leave a church the minute someone hurts their feelings or does something different than the way they would do it. There is no false ideal that Christian community is perfect. They assume there will be conflict within even great, healthy Christian communities.
Sixth, Taylor students learn that service is worth doing. There is the expectation at Taylor that you will give of your time and money to serve others. You are challenged to give money to fight AIDS in Africa, to spend time with teens in Hartford City and Marion, to travel overseas on Lighthouse and Spring Break trips to show people God’s love.
Taylor graduates do not need to be taught by their churches that it is important to be generous with their financial resources – even as recent college graduates. Taylor grads expect to find ministries in their church to get involved in. They know that they can’t be involved in everything because they experienced the flood of opportunities to serve at Taylor, but they expect to serve in an area that fits their interests and abilities.
In addition to the five practices name above, Yoder urges Christians to be characterized by holy living and witness. There is among Taylor graduates the understanding that we are to be eager to serve. The common Taylor phrase, “servant leader” gets at this idea.
Taylor University, though not a church, has the potential to prepare students for the very things John Howard Yoder says are key to the thriving of local church life. This has been my experience. I hope it is of many others as well.
Andy Rowell is a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His areas of concentration are "The Practice of Leading Christian Communities and Institutions" and "New Testament." Andy grew up in Wheaton, Illinois and received his BA at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana triple-majoring in Christian Educational Ministries, Biblical Studies and Spanish. He graduated with his M.Div. from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He served as an Associate Pastor at Granville Chapel in Vancouver from 1999-2005. From 2005-2007, he served as a professor of Christian Educational Ministries and Biblical Studies at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. Andy blogs at Church Leadership Conversations (www.andyrowell.net). Andy is married to Amy Rowell, Director of Children's Ministry at Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham. Andy and Amy have two sons Ryan and Jacob.