in 1930, dietrich bonhoeffer traveled to america to take advantage of a sloane fellowship at union theological seminary in new york city. while in america, bonhoeffer traveled extensively, made many friends, and experienced all kinds of different church culture. he was especially fascinated with the vibrant spirituality of the african-american churches in the south (and enjoyed their music which he took back to germany), but he was sorely disappointed with the superficial theology he saw in urban and academic circles.
describing “church” (the sunday experience) in america, bonhoeffer wrote…
The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference. Do people know they can get on well, even better, without “religion”?…I have no doubt that one day the storm will blow on this religious hand-out, if God himself is still anywhere on the scene.
I now often wonder whether it is true that America is the country without a reformation. If reformation means the God-given knowledge of the failure of all ways of building up a kingdom of God on earth, then it is probably true…There hardly ever seems to be “encounters” in this great country, in which one can always avoid the other. But where there is no encounter, where liberty is the only unifying factor, one naturally knows nothing of the community which is created through encounter. The whole life together is completely different as a result. Community in our sense, whether cultural or ecclesiastical, cannot develop there.
as of this writing, it is my observation (humbly presented) that the american church still has little understanding of the power of biblical community, nor of its scriptural and historical importance. one of the primary reasons the doctrine of salvation by grace is so difficult to grasp us that we do not allow ourselves to grow in the company of other redeemed sinners. we hesitate to make ourselves vulnerable to each other, and we mostly ignore james’ admonition to “confess our sins to each another and pray for each other” (james 5:16). how do we presume to grow in grace if we act as our own judge, jury and executioner?
as i read this book, i found myself wishing for a different ending. bonhoeffer was hanged in flossenberg concentration camp on sunday, april 8, 1945. less than two weeks later, flossenberg was liberated by the allies, and a week after that hitler committed suicide in his bunker in berlin. i thought to myself, “many friends urged bonhoeffer to remain in america, why couldn’t he have stayed and lived? wouldn’t that make more sense in god’s economy?” bonhoeffer was convinced, however, that he had heard from god, and the kingdom was best served by his return to germany and his struggle with the church and against the third reich.
i pray god would reveal to us our deep need for what bonhoeffer calls “encounter.” and i pray that we might see a revival and honesty and transparency that might finally allow us to grow closer together and deeper into his kingdom.
or we can simply appease ourselves with religion.