Book Review: From Isolation to Community

From Isolation to Community:
A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together
By Myles Werntz

As congregations shrink and parishes decline, there have been numerous efforts to ponder the causes. And of course, serious reflection given to how to meet this apparent drift away from the church. Sam Wells, Andrew Root, Jason Byassee, and Cathie Caimano are just a few of those who have engaged in such necessary assessment. I have contributed myself.

Myles Werntz teaches at Abilene Christian University and comes from the Baptist tradition, and so offers a distinctive perspective, but also with great ecumenical awareness of other traditions’ visions. He provides an insightful analysis of how the very heart of church, namely, community, is constantly challenged by tendencies toward isolation. He does this by looking more broadly at how the church has confronted isolation in the worlds of the past and then in our time. He then moves inside, as it were, to observe how the church as a community has itself recognized or not recognized, the centrifugal pull, the tendencies to retreat into isolation. He notes that in the last few years, the placing of services on YouTube, in zoom or other platforms, has made worship accessible but also increased the already prevalent tendency to stay away, to isolate from the community’s gathering. As one who was sustained by the weekly liturgy on zoom, as well as weekday classes and my own talks, also on zoom, I want to stand against those who urge that digital church be shut down. I know how crucial it is for those who physically cannot attend in person, for those traveling, and for those too distant to come. That said, Werntz does not reject “zoom church.” Rather, he argues that perhaps the imposed isolation during the pandemic had the benefit of revealing how essential bodily community it to being church.

His guide in this and really throughout his reflections is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian without equal in our time, who also looked with the eyes and heart of a parish pastor, which indeed he was. I want to credit Werntz for how he draws upon Bonhoeffer throughout the book. Having experienced the academic obsession that can beset those who focus on a single figure, I was heartened by the deft use of Bonhoeffer here, such that his ideas informed but never dominated the reflection. I have experienced this obsession with Kierkegaard early in my academic work and with other great theologians who become, for some,  the single lens through which analysis is forced. Bonhoeffer is especially instructive, not only because of his having to continue teaching and the underground seminary at Finkenwalde and his Life Together, but also because both in his earlier writing, especially Communio sanctorum as well as that in the Letters and Papers from Prison, he discerned the enormous impact of political and cultural forces on the church. We live in a time not unlike his, where now the very mention of “Christianity,” and for good reason, incites otherwise humane, open and progressive people to react negatively, this because of the distortion and misuse of Christianity in the current political marketplace. Werntz also listens to other important voices, Rowan Williams, Oliver O’Donovan, and Charles Taylor, among others.

Werntz really leaves no corner of life in the church neglected. With Bonhoeffer he is most attentive to all the “days apart” from worship and the worshipping community, namely the everyday, the weekdays when we likely are scattered. These are the prime times and places for the living out of the communion we shared on Sunday, that of the scriptures read and preached, and of the bread and cup shared. I want to celebrate Werntz’s great appreciation for the Eucharist, not a necessary consequence of the Baptist tradition. In the same vein, and stemming from Bonhoeffer, is the realization of the importance of confession for the relationships that comprise community. It is a real strength here that Werntz seems the interrelationship of so many elements in the sustaining of community among Christians. Baptism, the scriptures, prayer, holy communion and confession and ministry– the necessary living out of communal faith in witness as well as service in the world, in daily life, for all believers, ordained and lay.

This is a rich and discerning reflection, one which could be the basis for adult education, for a retreat as well as for lectio divina. Werntz has provided a real gift in a time of not just isolation but suspicion and division. His vision of church as community is affirming and healing. It is a good thing he teaches future pastors!

Werntz, Myles. From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. xii + 195 pages. $22.99. ISBN 9781540965059.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

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