Practical Theology Article

Saving the Service: Truth as Encounter

We have a crisis of the church service. As usual the catholic church is not as much affected by it as the protestant churches, but the reasons for this are manifold and not the topic of this article. People are leaving the church or they are still part of it, but do not attend the church service. Why? I believe that the protestant traditions usually have created and built on a foundation that created this crisis. The word. I do not refer to Jesus Christ as the word or the focus on the solas, but actually the spoken word. Emil Brunner had already seen and said this 50 years ago that we have a crisis of preaching.1 If you have a crisis of preaching in an event where people are gathered around a sermon, you have a serious issue… Bill Johnson of Bethel church has said this well. He mentions that Israel, instead, gathered around the presence of God.

For years now I believe that we need to create a platform, where people are not only taught, but experience. If one thinks, that this means great music, good atmosphere, creative elements – in short a great show, this certainly does not hurt. But it is not what I mean. I am talking about encounter, an encounter with the living God. The goal cannot be to talk about this encounter, but to create a platform, where people actually experience what is talked about.

Emil Brunner with his theological concept of truth as encounter 2 gave me the theological backbone to this conviction and it had also consequently lead him to his almost prophetic vision for the church. Truth as encounter basically means that we can only grasp truth through an encounter with the truth in person: Jesus Christ. Truth is not to be found in an subjective experience (where I create my “truth”), nor is it to be found in a seemingly objective teaching of truth (where I try get truth “under my feet”). Truth “happens” and becomes in an encounter that involves my whole being. This is not only theologically significant, but also by definition practically.

Truth as encounter can save the service! If we take this seriously enough we will start to build our church services again around God’s presence and not just around a sermon. The sermon is good and important, but it is not the central part of the service. God is. Not just talked about, but encountered. One could say that we are not able to create an encounter with God, since we are humans and God cannot be controlled. Right. We cannot create an encounter, but we can create the platform where we leave it to the Holy Spirit to encounter people. It is a form of risk, aka faith, to create elements that simply do not function without God “showing up”. Maybe this is simply an “encounter-time” after the sermon, maybe it is the prophetic, maybe the… It is time to get creative. One could argue that we already count on the power of the preached word or that God will somehow encounter people. Good. But it is time to not only count on it (damit rechnen), but to take account of it (einrechnen). The difference is that we are taking responsibility to create the service around an encounter and not a teaching.

  1. e.g. Dogmatics III
  2. Truth as encounter is one of his shorter books, but can safely be called the centrepiece of all of his theological works. There he unfolds his leitmotif of relationship which was later explicated in his other monographs and Dogmatics I-III

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