Curtiss DeYoung: The early church of reconciliation
All of what it means to be a Christian is immersed in the biblical idea of reconciliation, says the professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University.
August 30, 2011 | After graduating from Anderson University in Indiana, Curtiss DeYoung moved to New York City in 1980 to work at a homeless and youth runaway shelter and live in a Catholic house. Far from his nearly all-white hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., he said, he had extended himself well beyond his comfort zone and felt overwhelmed.
Seeking familiarity, he set out to visit the one church in New York City that was of the same denomination, the Church of God, that he grew up in. “I wanted to go to a church where everyone looked like me and worshipped like me,” he said.
He didn’t know until he got to the church that it was located in Harlem and that all the members were African-American.
“Because I’m white and all the members of the congregation were African-American,” DeYoung said, “the whole thing about everyone looking like me immediately changed.”
During his first visit to the church, the pastor called him to his office before the service started and invited him to sit on the pulpit with the other pastors, to greet the congregation, and to preach two weeks later. “All this happened within my first 10 minutes there,” DeYoung said. “It was a real introduction to a different way of doing church than I had experienced.”
He attended the church for a year before enrolling at Howard University, where he earned a master of divinity degree. Today, he’s a professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University, an ordained minister in the Church of God, and the author of “Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity” and “Reconciliation: Our Greatest Challenge, Our Only Hope.”
“The key experiential transformation for me was attending an African-American congregation and learning about church in another kind of way and from another perspective,” DeYoung said. “It so enriched my life that I simply didn’t want to go back.”
DeYoung was a faculty member at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation’s Summer Institute. He spoke with Faith & Leadership about the theological foundation of reconciliation and how leaders can apply it in today’s churches.
Q: You have said that with your writing and research, you’ve tried to seek a theological foundation for reconciliation. What have you discovered about the theological foundation for reconciliation?
In some ways, the term “reconciliation” encompasses all of what the Scriptures are about, particularly the New Testament and the gospel message. It includes our relationship with God and being reconnected -- that we, humanity, were created in the garden with this wonderful relationship to God, which was broken through the fall, and then Jesus comes and reconciles us back to God. By being reconciled to God, we’re automatically put into relationship with other folks who’ve been reconciled to God, which creates the Christian community.
But I also think the principle that comes out of biblical passages like Ephesians 2 and 2 Corinthians 5 is that we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. It’s as though all of what it means to be Christian is immersed in this idea of reconciliation.
If you study the New Testament and look at the different congregations mentioned, they’re all about living out this idea of reconciliation -- like the Jerusalem church, which was an ethnically Jewish church, but it brought together a Jerusalem culture, a Galilean culture and a diaspora Jewish culture, all in one church. It was culturally reconciled. Certainly, economic reconciliation was occurring there between rich and poor.
If you put on the glasses of reconciliation, you see it throughout the Scriptures.
Q: How do you build reconciliation into today’s churches?
That is the question that, if we could answer it, we would be very rich people, at least rich in faith. That is the greatest challenge.
I think that if the apostle Paul, who was the champion of the early church of reconciliation, if he were to come back on the scene today, he would be shocked, because it is a world that is divided. The idea of churches based on race would probably be abhorrent to Paul and the early church. Even though they struggled with that challenge in their own cultural context, they felt that’s where the gospel was calling them. Gender issues, class issues -- these were all things that occurred in the world, but you came into the church through Christ to live in a united community.
Today, unfortunately, we’re quick to leave and go find another church or let our theology divide us. That’s what’s different today about reconciliation. We’re trying to reconcile the church today; in the first century, the church was reconciling the world.
Q: What will it take to get to the first-century model?
First, it takes a central understanding that the primary role of the church is to be a community of reconciliation. Also, it takes a great dependence on the Holy Spirit. We see that in the first-century church it was the guidance of the Spirit that often took the lead in unity.
A good example of where we’ve seen movements in the church occurred in the early 1900s with the birth of what we call modern-day Pentecostalism, with the Azusa Street Revival. In 1906, William Seymour, an African-American preacher in a time of very high segregation in the United States, was the leader of that movement with whites and Latinos and Asians and others. It was tough to sustain, but they saw a connection between the mood of the Holy Spirit and unity.