“The Transformative Church” Interview

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with Cory Piña for the Fuller Seminary website. That’s only accessible to students, staff, faculty, and alumni, so I asked if I could repost it here.  Cory graciously said yes (well, he actually said, “You are absolutely welcome to!”).  So here it is. Enjoy!

Patrick Oden completed both his MDiv and PhD (Systematic Theology) at Fuller. You might have seen his name around, and maybe even had the pleasure of taking a course with him. He’s been teaching online (and a little face-to-face) for us for the last few years, now as an Affiliate faculty member.

Patrick recently had a book published, representing the work of his PhD thesis. It’s called The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann.

Here’s Patrick, telling us more about writing, Moltmann, and what it means to be a Transformative Church.


CORY: Now, you’re not a first-time author. You’ve published a few books before – something I’m willing to bet a good chunk of our students would like to do. So I’ll ask on their behalf: How do you do that?

PATRICK: Just do it! There’s never really a good time to write, though I made use of my single status after finishing my MDiv, taking time being underemployed and writing a lot. I got in the habit of writing 1000 words a day, usually in the morning. Do a little bit like that each day, after a few months there’s a rough draft of a book. While in school, that’s pretty impossible to keep up, but classes can be a way of absorbing research, finding streams of interest, books to read later, ideas to pursue. A lot of what I’ve written had its beginnings in class work, both articles and books.

CORY: Am I right that The Transformative Church is the work of your doctoral thesis?

PATRICK: Yep. There were some sections moved around, some honing and editing, mostly cleaning it up, making it even more readable. It’s very much the same overall content. I also had to put together an index. I never even thought about how indexes are put together until I learned that it’s the author’s responsibility. A lot of authors pay people to do them, or have their research assistants do them.

CORY: I know you have a whole chapter on this, but can you briefly summarize what you mean by “The Transformative Church”?

PATRICK: Sure. There’s roughly three different ways to “be” the church in a given society. Conforming, where the church doesn’t look or sound that much different from their surroundings. The church is projected from the context. Second, there’s the sectarian approach, where the goal is to separate, in practices and thought, if not physically. The church is called to be fully the church in and of itself, with practices primarily contained within the community of faith. The church is projected to the surrounding context, as an example for the context.

Finally, there’s the embedded approach, where a church community participates in, but not validating the whole of, a context. This latter is what I see as transformative.

In becoming a messianic people in the context of community this extends beyond the narrow bounds of church with and into the neighborhood. Those who are being formed into the likeness of Christ, participate with the Spirit in transforming their context. It’s active and engaged in, with, and among their environment, incarnating within each context, bringing the good news in a holistic way that shapes the context with a different narrative, that of the Kingdom.

CORY: How did you arrive at that name?

PATRICK: I had to come up with a title. And while my initial interest was sparked by my involvement in and study of the emerging church movement, the movement that still uses that name has morphed into something different, while others have separated into different streams, like the missional, neo-monastic, or fresh expression groups, among others.

So, I didn’t want to use a worn out and imprecise term like emerging, and I didn’t want to have a mass of different movement names. So, I spent a couple weeks trying to figure out what the underlying ecclesiology was about, and how the various strands could be tied together in how they approach church models.

Also, emerging is really vague. What’s the goal? The idea of formation, becoming more like Christ, was combined with an involvement in and with a specific context, so the formation extended wherever each person went, whether work or school or public places. The term transformative fit exactly what I was trying to describe.

CORY: What does this all have to do with Jurgen Moltmann?

PATRICK: Back in 2003 or so, I’d pretty much given up on emerging church stuff. I was connected with it since the 90s, though it wasn’t called that. I was frustrated by what I saw in practices, which often had a rhetoric that didn’t match the practices. It was still hierarchical in value not just function, and there was a lot of dysfunction because so much of it came out of angst against the past and vague instinct where it was going. I liked the idea of it, but thought it was being co-opted as another church growth model, and promised a lot more than it was delivering.

Then, I started reading Moltmann in depth. I had read a couple books by him while in seminary, but then started reading his works more thoroughly, later auditing a class on his theology. Even though Moltmann had never heard of the emerging church, there was a strand of ecclesiology through all his books that really sounded a lot like what I had experienced and heard from the emerging and missional folks. Yet, his thoughts were coming out of very deep and well-developed theological themes. There was the depth I was looking for.

One PhD later, I’m even more convinced that there’s a shared ecclesiology that came out of very different contexts and motivations. A move of the Spirit? I think so!

CORY: You travelled to see Moltmann in person when working on your thesis. Again: How do you do that?

PATRICK: There was a bit of a hiccup in financial aid during the 2010-2011 school year, and I wasn’t able to afford to register for a Spring class. I was on a full fellowship, but even those got knocked down during the financial crunch.

Then, Fuller came through with more funding and I was able to take a class. There was not anything immediately relevant on the schedule and so I thought about doing a directed reading that would feed into my potential dissertation. Who with? Who better than the topic of my dissertation. Think bold!

Moltmann had endorsed my first book, so we had kept up some correspondence over the years. I wrote him and he wrote back and said he would do it! He doesn’t use email or any electronic communication, types on an old typewriter, so the only way I could pull it off was to go to Germany.

I went with my wife, Amy, who was working for Fuller at the time as well. We made a grand adventure of it! A delayed honeymoon as well as an academic opportunity. I got married in January 2009, between Fall and Winter quarters in my first year of PhD work, which didn’t offer very much time for a honeymoon. Amy had been a missionary in southern France (Montauban) for four years before we got married, and had a lot of friends there.

Then we spent about five days in Tubingen, and I walked about a mile from our hotel to Moltmann’s house for three afternoon sessions about about two hours each. He was extremely gracious and very helpful. He corrected, sometimes challenged, and often encouraged my musings, providing a very strong foundation for writing.

After Tubingen, we traveled to Leipzig and Prague, where Amy had other friends. All her contacts meant that we had two weeks of free housing during the three weeks we were over there. A wonderful blessing of God from beginning to end.

CORY: I’m assuming your work on this thesis/book represents something for you besides being a criterion for your PhD. If this contribution does what you want it to do, what would that look like?

PATRICK: Indeed! I realized long ago that the only way for me to make it through academics is to get excited about what I was working on. And while the lavish lifestyle and wide acclaim that comes from finishing a PhD are great, there’s definitely more I hope the book accomplishes. It’s an academic book, so I don’t expect a wide audience, but even still there’s three ways I hope this presses discussions forward.

First, one of my hopes with the book and my own continuing work is to push past the divide between systematic theology and what happens in Christian communities. There’s theology happening in every direction, but increasingly people assume systematic theology is irrelevant or esoteric. Very few people outside of theological academia have heard of Moltmann. Meanwhile, forty years ago magazines like Time or Newsweek would have articles about Wolfhart Pannenberg, Moltmann, and others.

What we believe about God affects almost every aspect of our daily life, intentionally or unintentionally, and systematic theology needs to find a way back into the conversations of church life, and personal transformation. With this too, theology has lost some of its own direct connection with the questions and issues and responses of contemporary life, so it needs dialogue with what’s going on in churches and communities. In other words, my hope is to show how theology and practical Christian life inform each other and need each other.

Systematic theology has historically been written in contexts of church life, responding out of and back into issues of immediate concern. Only recently has it been narrowed to primarily academic contexts. Or maybe it has narrowed itself, not passively but in discouragement about reception or in light of wanting to gain favor in the broader academy. I think theology is most Christian when it is directly relating to the life of the church, of the people, and of this world. I hope to contribute to this return. That’s why I study, teach, and write about theology at least.

Second, my hope is to point towards Moltmann’s long interest in ecclesiology, which seems to be a driving passion throughout his works, often indirectly. Like with any theologian, there are a lot of misconceptions based on partial readings or secondary commentaries, so in looking at the whole of his work, my hope is to show how his work is coherent in his method and goals. The book serves as a summary of his works seen through the lens of a doctrine of the church, and maybe will help readers see something new or get excited about reading his works in more depth.

Third, as I say in my preface, my hope is for and with the church. When I finished my MDiv I was very discouraged in my own church experiences and becoming very cynical. I left ministry before I completely burned out in the midst of a lot of dysfunction and church politics. This book shows why I hope for and with the church. It points to ways the church can be transformative for people and communities in this present world, showing examples of how this is being worked out in both theology and practice.

Having been part of the emerging church and missional conversation for a while, I knew they were onto something, but there was not a lot of theological support as we find with established church traditions. So, I wanted to show there was theological justification behind the missional/emerging/Fresh Expression impulse. Moltmann offers a rather complex, if not comprehensive, study of Christian theology that leads right into the kinds of expressions we see in these churches. His approach involves a Christian community that is embedded in their neighborhoods, part of the life of the broader community, living out the messianic mission in the midst of focused community and wherever daily life happens.

CORY: If students want to contact you about PhD work or writing books, or visiting Jurgen Moltmann, can they do that? How should they reach you?

I’m always open to questions or conversation. A book represents a lot time and a lot of one’s own heart, so it’s definitely encouraging to hear from people who have read it or want to know more about the process that led to it. The best way to reach me is through email: patrickoden@gmail.com.

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