At lunch, the pastor tells me he has finished reading almost all of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works. He hasn’t read Sanctorum Communioyet, but he just turned the last page of the Christmas Sermons. Beginning in Lent, the council is going to read Life Together.
The congregation recently made a commitment in 2012 to articulate the values that would guide their decisions about mission giving. “We started working on the list, but then decided we shouldn’t continue until we read Life Together,” the pastor explained.
This pastor leads a congregation that is sturdy. It isn’t likely to be the focus of a church growth study, or make the cover of Time during Holy Week. However, it is a congregation that makes a difference in people’s lives. The parking lot is full during the week. The lights are on in the evening. Membership numbers are steady.
Several conditions enhance a congregation’s ability to address the challenges and opportunities it faces. At the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, we have observed these various conditions in action. They include simple yet important realities: use of outside resources to learn new capacities, clergy and laity learning together, and congregations assuming the initiative over their futures.
Another emerging condition we’re observing is theological coherence; the ability to think clearly about God and then accordingly. A congregation that is clear and consistent about how it understands God, and applies this understanding to its daily life, is more able to deal effectively with challenges and opportunities.
There is a correlation, after all, between the way leaders think and speak about God and the health of a congregation.
Congregations are religious bodies, having to do with the things of God. Clergy and lay leaders face all kinds of challenges. In problem solving mode, it is easy to forget the primary subject of a congregation. However, clearly recalling and consistently acting on the reality that God is the subject of the congregation provides congregations the energy and thoughtfulness needed to address their most pressing challenges and opportunities.
Theological coherence provides immunity against fearful reasoning. Through theological coherence there is greater congruence between a congregation’s stated values and what it does. Such congruence strengthens the will of a congregation as it faces the inevitable challenges of conflict, cultural demands, and the wear and tear of everyday congregational life.
People do not need to become theological experts in an academic sense. Congregations do not need to schedule certificate programs in Barth’s Dogmatics. Yet, congregations that practice what they preach, and preach what they practice, participate in theological coherence. Such intelligibility strengthens a congregation against forces that otherwise might weaken ministry.
Congregational theological coherence constructs thinking about God that matches the reality of God and the congregation’s experience of God. Some things are mystery, but not all things. Clergy and lay leaders make essential aspects of faith comprehendible by being articulate about God, and then shaping congregational life in ways consistent with what is being articulated.
In a theologically coherent congregation, thinking about God is rooted in a tradition. Yet, the tradition is corrected, supported, and otherwise influenced by the present context. What does this mean to us now?
Theological coherence takes many forms in a congregation. It might begin with a clergyperson’s interest in a particular, theological school of thought (I’ve always been interested in Paul Tillich, or I was changed by a visit to a Dorothy Day site in New York). Or a congregation might have experience connecting with a particular theological movement (Believe or not we still have deep Scottish roots here, Knox would love us). Theological coherence might get planted in a congregation because someone brings a book to a study group and its contents takes root with the readers (We got started on this because we all read Mere Christianity together).
Such beginnings lead to strategic efforts to integrate theological reflection into the life of the congregation. This takes place formally at the governing board. Evidence of theological coherence might show up in mission and vision statements. It is supported by adult education. Theological coherence is exhibited more informally as part of everyday conversation – prayer during hospital visits, comments in the hallway, Facebook messages and so on.
Congregations that live by coherent theological themes might participate in pilgrimages (even if they don’t call them that). They might collect relics (even if they don’t call them that). All such things contribute, not just to a theological opinion, but a comprehensive worldview.
Through the Center for Congregations, we’ve observed a variety of conditions that help congregations learn new ways of addressing challenging circumstances. Those who learn by using an outside resource combined with their own ingenuity are able to work through such challenges, no matter if they are profound or mundane. Theological coherence in congregations makes use of both outside resources and inner creativity. It is like God is in the space between these two means.
After lunch, my pastor friend and I walked out into the sunlight. I asked, “What’s going on back at the church?” He said, “Tonight I’m sitting in on a meeting about repaving the parking lot.” I said, “I bet that doesn’t have much to do with Bonhoeffer.” He was turning towards his car when he said, “You’d be surprised. I always am.