Trueblood on ministry and everyday life

Way back in 1961–that’s the year before I was born–the philosopher D. Elton Trueblood published a little book entitled The Company of the Committed: A Manual of Action for Every Christian. Though I didn’t find it until the early 90s, it was a game-changer for me.  Even today, despite the dated language, it’s an inspiring read.

As a philosopher and a Quaker, Trueblood had little time for religious faith segmented from the concerns and contexts of ‘common life’. He saw as especially puerile the disconnections of place (confining religious expression to church buildings), time (keeping religious fervour to Sunday mornings) and personnel (surrendering religious commitments to the clergy) that dogged the church of his day, warning that such disconnects rendered ‘the company of the committed’ impotent as agents of a life-changing gospel: ‘By segregating religion in place or time or personnel, we make religion relatively trivial, concerned with only part of experience when it ought to be concerned with the whole of life.’

Trueblood argued for a radical reframing of the language of ministry and mission. He called for ‘a fundamental denial of that kind of division of labor in which the majority have a secular responsibility and a minority have a Christian responsibility. There is always some need of a division of labor in life, partly because people have radically different gifts, but a division of labor is damaging and vicious when it leaves the promotion of the gospel to a few, while the others merely support them in such work.’

In light of this, Trueblood was especially critical of the diminishment of the ‘ministry of the laity’ to (i) giving support to the structures and programmes of the institution and (ii) helping the pastor with the chores around the church buildings. Trueblood argued that ‘the only kind of lay ministry worth encouraging is that which makes a radical difference to the entire Christian enterprise.’ In other words, lay ministry is not some second-rate auxiliary to the real thing. It is the real thing—men and women engaged at the very forefront of everyday life as ministers of liberation and redemption: ‘If Christianity is to be understood not as a retreat from life in the world but as an effort to transfigure life itself, if follows that the Church needs the service of men and women at the point where they are most exposed to the problems of our political and economic order.’  And that’s not in church on Sunday.

Despite his Quaker roots and persistent critique of institutional religion, Trueblood was not anti-clergy, nor was he dismissive of the Sunday gathering for worship. He affirmed both as crucial to an inspired, empowered and educated laity, equipped and ready for the ministry of common life: ‘The older idea was that the lay members were the pastor’s helpers, but the new and vital idea is that the pastor is the helper of the ordinary lay members in the performance of their daily ministry in the midst of secular life.’

Trueblood’s proposals did not go down well with the institutional gatekeepers of his day. In fact, to a significant degree, he was silenced in the places where his voice was most needed.  Perhaps he was ahead of his time.

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