Contexistentialism

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.”

9 replies

  1. Love the parallel you draw between the idea and reality of the coffee shop to that of the church congregation. “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.” I believe this. What are the tools we could use? I often think that setting an expectation that everyone take Disciple Bible Study I as a disciple creation would give us a common ground for transformation. Similarly, the mandated congregation-wide participation requirement of the The Real Life Evangelism Series by Marth Grace Reese is supposed to enable common transformation of the congregation to focus everyone on how to pray and how to talk about one’s faith (evangelism). To pull this off would take extraordinary commitment and leadership. It is one congregational-wide tool to enable “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.” My pastor thinks this will work, but he is a weak leader and many of our old guard do not respect him. I think I have given up and am doing my own thing, like so many do in our congregation. Sometimes I think it would be easier to start a new congregation than to affect a transformational change in this one. Tell me, please, how you have affected congregational transformation?

  2. Just what we need: another fringe “congregation.” Why not do the work involved to inspire people to come back to the Faith? Pastors get too involved in the bureaucracy, the business, the corporatocracy of running the Church (i.e. the $$$). Politics are played, values are twisted
    and it all looks like anything but Church. I am so disgusted with the WI Methodist Conference — after having been a faithful member and worker for 70+ years — it’s unbelievable.

    • What part of this article defines “another fringe congregation”? I am not sure how making real disciples living their faith in the world is “fringe.” Certainly it is rare, but it is an excellent challenge. It is sad that you have seventy+ years experience in a bad model, but what Dan Dick is proposing is “inspiring people to come back to faith.” Do you not think this description has substance? If our churches resembled this description in the least, I think we would be in much better shape.

  3. I meant that there seem to be “breakaway congregations” popping up everywhere. Someone is dissatisfied with the way their church is going, so they start a new group of a few followers. (They are not necessarly pastors, by any means.) So in our small town (approx. 10,000 pop.) we have about 5 different “Methodist” churches. Why? As DD wrote earlier, wouldn’t it be more “efficient” to combine small churches into a larger group? And yet I don’t see this happening.
    BTW, I wasn’t referring to DD’s article; I was referring to the previous post. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

  4. I’m not sure if you are referring to my post, Cordelia, but if you or any one else have an example of how to “do the work involved to inspire people to come back to the Faith,” that was effective, I am interested.

    Thanks,

  5. Mike in Colorado asks about tools and expectations. A pastor of a growing church in our conference told me that one of the best things that church had done was to figure out who they, as a congregation, were called to be, and then to tell people who were considering joining: This is who we are and what we do. If God is calling you to be and to do something different, you may want to consider whether this is the right place for you at this time. The people who are working on what you’re called to do may be meeting somewhere else.

    In a sense, many churches do this in an implicit and less-healthy way. They won’t (and can’t) tell you up front who they are, but you may find out soon enough after you join that you don’t fit in. By doing the work to arrive at an explicit statement of their calling, this congregation helped their current members to get on board, and they were able to view the availability of multiple congregations in the area as an asset rather than as competition.

  6. Good article, but I think the underlying issue you were touching on is the perception of context. We perceive that our fellow congregants are on the same level as us, but the reality as you alluded to is that there are several concurrent contexts within a congregation. Partially that’s our own “fault” as we are purposefully trying to attract the disparate group of participants like you say.

    If I can use my own analogy, if we were attracting students we may get some who are in kindergarten while others in college. Owing to the stage the student find themselves in, they’ll have differing capacities to participate. Similarly, there are some in our congregations that are at an elementary level for starting on their faith while others are further down the line.

    The outgrowth of this is that you’ll have some people who won’t be interested in growth opportunities like a “leadership seminar, training institute, church growth book, ten-week study” and we shouldn’t expect that of them. We should have leaders that are cognizant that different opportunities for faith building are better suited for some than others. Where we can frustrated is that we sometimes assume that someone else’s context in how they perceive worship is the same as ours. Consequently, we need patience and leadership in help guiding congregations (not to mention prayer).

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