For a reader, a coffee shop is a frustrating tease. Whenever I think about taking a good book to the coffee shop, I envision sitting cozy in one of the comfy chairs with a good cup of coffee, losing myself in whatever I am reading — perhaps with some good music playing in the background. Ideal. But what generally happens (as it did today) is I find myself squeezed into a noisy, bustling chaos, with cold drafts blowing in each time someone opens the door, a general din of noise, and I end up next to a table of people who are talking to each other at the top of their voices. Usually a child has spilled something, two or three people are kindly sharing their end of a cell phone conversation with everyone, and at least one person will bump my arm while I am holding an open cup of coffee. Less than ideal. The IDEA of the coffee shop is sublime while the REALITY is often ridiculous.
Parallel, the church. There is nothing more sublime than the vision of a people, gathered and joined for the common purpose of worshiping God, learning the guiding principles of a shared faith, discerning and pursuing together a shared vision, and living transformed and transforming lives in the community and world. The assembly existentially rests on what is good, and beautiful, and true — aligning all effort and energy to becoming a keen reflection of the God we worship and follow. Ideal. Ah, but the ideal is rarely the reality. This is the other sublime aspect of true church — it isn’t for perfect people, but imperfect.
But there is still a difference between imperfect and dysfunctional. Taylor Burton Edwards and I had a spirited conversation about the role, identity, and purpose of this critter we call “the congregation.” I believe a congregation exists to move toward the ideal mentioned above. There is intentionality to gather the disparate participants – individuals, small groups, fringe elements, etc. — to create something greater than the sum of the parts. Through relationships — one-on-one, small groups, short-term fellowships — faith is formed, and the totality of these efforts defines the congregation. A congregation – as a discrete entity — is only as strong as its weakest or most limited part. Therefore, the key role of leadership (in my opinion) is to lead toward the ideals of “community of faith” (where the whole is more important than the wants and needs of individuals) and “body of Christ” (where the whole exists in service to God’s will rather than personal interests and agendas). It has been pointed out that this is not what most people who come to our churches want — and I understand and agree with that — but (for me) it doesn’t remove the responsibility of our leadership to create environments where such formation can occur.
I feel we sometimes confuse “aggregation” for “congregation.” An aggregate is an accumulation — like flotsam and jetsam caught in a tree branch on a rushing river. It just happens. It is arbitrary and random — there is no intentionality. Whatever happens, happens without design or plan. This may be a description of many of our churches, but it is a lousy definition for a “congregation.” To congregate, to gather, demands purpose — we come together for a reason or reasons that define our reason for being. If the reason for being of a church is to worship God, to serve the will of God, and to function as the body of Christ in the world (my understanding of the Christian “church”), then a “congregation” is a human construct designed for the purpose of allowing these things to happen. I have been told that congregations have never existed for this purpose, and I disagree — but I realize it has more to do with the definition of “congregation” than anything else. I don’t mean passive aggregation defined by the lowest common denominators and the low expectations of the least engaged. I understand that this has always been a definition of congregation — it simply isn’t mine.
If I have learned anything in the past fifteen years it is this: context rules. There is nothing more important to a group of people in relationship (a short-hand definition of a congregation for me) than context. Who we are, where we are, where we have come from, the trajectory we are on, the resources available to us, our gifts/knowledge/abilities/experience/passions — these define us and are the milieu in which all things are interpreted. It is one of the reasons I have come to believe that no one else has our solution — we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling! A leadership seminar, training institute, church growth book, ten-week study, campaign, or program designed by a successful church or company has limited to no value for most congregations. Square peg, round hole. Our most successful and healthy congregations discovered their pathway to vitality within themselves, by the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. No formula, pill, or quick-fix remedy made the difference. Those in authority simply made the decision to quit following (the paths of others in other places) and instead to lead.
We understand context to mean our setting, background, unique situation, or position — and all of these are valid and important — but the original meaning of the concept was “to weave together,” and the “context” of a fabric was the quality and integrity of the weave. When the whole cloth was well-woven, it was quality material. This provides the guiding metaphor for my vision of “congregation” — finely woven fabric where all the threads are in integrous relationship with the whole. Ideal? You betcha. Christian faith is idealism — a desire to be something better than what we are. A striving after (moving on to) perfection. When we throw up our hands and say that a congregation cannot be more than an aggregation of disconnected threads, we abdicate our responsibility as leaders. Laity and clergy together with responsibility to lead a congregation serve as master weavers, drawing together various threads to create whole cloth on the loom of faith and Spirit. The pattern and texture will vary from place to place, but the base work stays the same. And just because this hasn’t been the reality in the past says nothing about whether it could be our reality in the future.
The United Methodist Church has a bad habit of letting the future happen to it instead of designing and creating the future God calls it to have. We are reactive, dealing with problems and challenges as they arise instead of actively creating something positive and possibility-filled. We waste precious time worrying over what we are not — all that we have lost, everything we lack, what we wish we had, what we cannot do — instead of maximizing the potential of all we have and are. What faithless stewardship! We aren’t headed toward a Promised Land, we’re merely wandering in a wilderness of our own design.
What is our context? It is whatever we choose to create. We do not have to settle for what we’ve got. We have been given everything we need by God to make whatever we most desire. The fact that congregations aren’t centers for spiritual transformation is a reflection of our true values, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can become whatever we believe God wants us to be. We are not limited by our resources, but by our imaginations. A key function of leadership is to close the gap between what we are and what we know we should be. We need ideals to shoot for — to give us goals and objectives that lift us from what “is” into the fullness of what “could be.”