IBOC updates guide that explores central Moravian documents

This spring, the Interprovincial Board of Communication introduced the second edition of Jesus Still Lead On. This guide, revised and updated by its author, the Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood, is intended to help congregations explore the basic statements of Moravian doctrine and practice: the Ground of the Unity and the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living.

This expanded second edition provides those new to the Moravian Church – and those who have been Moravian all their lives – with a core understanding of our faith tradition.  Each chapter in Jesus Still Lead On covers a different aspect of each of the Moravian Church’s core documents.  The format includes the text from each document, commentary from the author and discussion/study questions.  It’s flexible design allows it to be used by small or large groups, from confirmation age to adults.

The first edition was published in 2004 and has been used by congregations across the denomination.  This update, revised at the request of the IBOC, reflects changes in the church and expanded scholarship since that first edition.

In Jesus Still Lead On, author Atwood describes how this study guide came to be—and where it goes from here.

“What do Moravians believe?” I’ve been asked that question many times, and I often start by saying that Moravians believe many different things. The Moravian Church does not require each of its members to profess their agreement with a series of doctrines. Instead it recognizes that people come from many different backgrounds and have their own ways of interpreting the Bible and living the Christian life. Many of our congregations say “All are welcome,” and that means that people are welcome to be part of our church even if they do not believe exactly the way the church teaches.

As we shall see, the Moravian Church’s doctrinal statements even allow for a diversity of beliefs. So instead of saying what Moravians as individuals believe, I prefer to tell people what the Moravian Church teaches about God, the Bible and the Christian life. It teaches through its official doctrinal statements, its theological heritage, hymns and liturgies, its polity and statements of synods. This study guide is going to look closely at the doctrinal statements of the church, but those leading the study may want to bring in hymns, liturgies, and other things that illuminate the issue being discussed.

This study guide originated in the midst of conflict within North American Christianity. In the last quarter of the 20th century, many denominations struggled over issues that arose from the cultural changes the United States and Canada had experienced since World War II: the Cold War and its ending, rock and roll music, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, rise in divorce rates, the sexual revolution, industrialization, globalization and so forth.

Churches had also been in conflict since the 1920s over fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. Older, more established (so-called Mainline) Protestant denominations, like the Moravians, found themselves faced with conflict over social, political and theological issues within – and the rise of popular evangelicalism and the charismatic movement without. Congregations and the clergy who serve them were caught up in debates over styles of music in worship, ways to evangelize, biblical inerrancy, interreligious dialog, sexuality, civil rights, human rights and Christian ethics.

In the Moravian Church in North America, lay people began asking, “What does the church teach about God and Christian living?” No doubt some people were trying to decide if the Moravian Church agreed with them or whether doctrinal statements could be used in the so-called “culture wars” in American society. But many people were sincerely looking for guidance and insight from their church. Moravians are famously non-confrontational people, and sometimes it appeared that the church did not have much to offer. People were asking for more than just the statements themselves, but what is at the heart of the Moravian approach to Christianity.

In the Southern Province, where I am a member, the Board of Christian Education in the 1990s developed a spirituality program called Gemeinschaft. Hundreds of lay people and pastors participated in this program and found it deeply meaningful. A core component of the program was weekly study of the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living, which is part of this study guide. Many participants found that this statement offered a better approach to controversial ideas than simply engaging in partisan political and religious debate.

Also during the 1990s, the Northern Province proposed a change in some of the wording of the Ground of the Unity, which is the official doctrinal statement of the global Moravian Church (the Unity). This proposal was vigorously discussed in synod and other settings. For many Moravians, this was their first encounter with the Ground of the Unity. In both provinces there was also a lot of discussion/argument over whether there can be salvation or truth outside of Christianity and whether “All are Welcome” includes only people with a heterosexual orientation. As a result people began looking more closely at the church’s official teachings.

After the Southern Province synod of 2002, I joined the staff of Home Moravian Church as “Theologian in Residence,” which meant that I was called to study and write about Moravian theology and teach courses for lay people who were interested in learning more about their church and the broader Christian Church. Almost as soon as I arrived, I was asked to lead a study of Ground of the Unity. Over 50 people a night gathered to learn and discuss Moravian doctrine. After we finished, the Interprovincial Board of Communications asked me to go a step further and write a study guide that other congregations could use. And they asked that it include both the Covenant for Christian Living and the Ground of the Unity. For Moravians life and faith intertwine, and we should talk about ethics as we talk about God.

Please note that this study guide was written specifically for a North American context in the early 21st century. Some of the material may be useful in other parts of the world, but others may not. I hope that Moravians in other provinces will take what is useful for them and add material specific to their context. The Covenant for Christian Living is a statement of both the Northern and Southern Provinces in North America, but the Ground of the Unity is for Moravians in every province.

The second edition of Jesus Still Lead On is now available from the IBOC. Visit the IBOC’s site (store.moravian.org) or contact them at  610.867.0593, ext. 703.