by Tim Shapiro

Some time ago Wendell Berry wrote an essay in which the title asks, “What Are People For?” The context was the movement of people from farm to city. Berry argues that such a pilgrimage weakens small towns and overburdens cities. He notes that people are to work, to produce, and to create. People are not born for unemployment and welfare dependency. People are for local community characterized by the necessary work of restoration of and care for the common good.

Berry is a concise, rooted writer with a distinct point of view. He practices what he preaches. My primary interest is related to his title. It is, of course, an essential question: What are people for?

Berry inspires me to ask a similar question. What are congregations for?

My question cannot be answered by a mission statement or a denominational slogan. The answer is not revealed in a three-year strategic plan. I’m seeking to describe the one thing that makes congregational life essential to human flourishing and differentiates it from other important institutions, such as schools, hospitals, service clubs, and government.

What are congregations for? It is a deep, pressing question. It is pressing because clergy and laity should have clarity about the purpose of the congregation they serve. Without clarity, the congregation too easily becomes something counter to its essence, as a tree pretending to be a skyscraper. Such a distortion leads people to look for an elevator when they could be admiring the leaves.

This is my answer. The primary purpose of congregations is to help human beings grow into a more mature, more deeply human existence. Congregations contribute to mature human existence by creating the opportunity for adherents to develop dispositions of trust.

I walk into worship. Two pews in front of me is a city police officer in uniform. A wire leads from her waist to an earplug. Handcuffs hang from her belt. She has a pistol, covered by a holster, but I see it clearly. I feel uneasy. I don’t like seeing weapons in worship. Actually, my feeling is more like detesting. At the same time I respect a law officer. I hold in admiration the uniform, the sacrifice of many law enforcement officers and their dedication to public safety. So, the proper word for my reaction is ambivalence.

I see she is sitting next to someone, a boyfriend or husband. He has his arm around her in a comforting position. During the prayer of confession, I notice she is crying. We stand in response of assurance of forgiveness and sing glory to God. She shakes as she sits back down. I’m watching her now and see that throughout the rest of the service she is wiping her eyes, through the sermon, through the hymn O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High.

She rests back in the arms of the man sitting with her; a human expression of leaning on the everlasting arms? What doctrine, what dogma, what creed, can express what she is experiencing? Or what she needs? Some congregations are very good at teaching the beliefs of their tradition. These are helpful things to know. Yet, I don’t think they are always necessary things to know. It is necessary to lean into the mystery of life. Circumstances, if not choice, will make it so. It is helpful, even essential, to not be overwhelmed by the high probability of faltering, or perhaps worse, the high odds that someone you love very much will fall and you will not be able to catch them. O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High.

As we leave worship, I try to get eye contact with the police officer. But I can’t. She has her head down, head in hands.

I can only imagine what experience she brings to worship. Perhaps someone close has died or is not going to live. Maybe her father, as this was Father’s Day by the secular calendar, Trinity Sunday by the ecclesial calendar. Maybe she had drawn her gun the night before. Or someone fired at her. Then again, perhaps a long-deserved promotion had not come through.

What belief could help her make sense of these things? There is much to believe, or to disbelieve, in any denomination. Maybe that is why some churches ask if members trust in Jesus instead of believe in Jesus.

Congregations exist fundamentally for the disposition of trust. This is not the same as instilling particular beliefs (though beliefs help us form a language about trust). Instead, trust is ultimately what our baptismal vows, Bible schools, prayer groups, council meetings, hospital calls, and mission work are about. We rely ultimately on God for well-being beyond our control. Congregations are to foster the experiences of such a deeper trust, a trust that has to do with hope, deliverance, and confidence despite no guarantees. Learning trust is a lifelong endeavor. You can’t will it. You can’t force it.

Congregations are to create a safe place for trust to be tried. I acknowledge churches often abuse trust instead of creating trust. Yet congregations, at their best, provide experiences and interpretations of what it means to lean backwards off the edge of uncertainty. In whom or what do I ultimately count on when I slip off the brink? In God I trust; I am not afraid (Psalm 56:4).

Congregational life provides different activities that provide just enoughrisk and loss for trust education. It is not that other institutions don’t. It is that other institutions’ trust education is more overtly shaped by market forces rather than consideration of God.

A member plans a congregation’s childcare program for toddlers living below the poverty rate. Giving to the program is a sign of trust. Members of a worship committee complain, then argue, and then reconcile through a six-month discussion on how frequently to serve the Lord’s Supper. Learning to disagree about the sacrament is a practice of trust that is at the heart of the ritual itself. A rabbi leaves a congregation after 22 years of service and congregants say that it feels like one of their parents has died. Grieving the loss of a beloved leader requires the discipline of letting go and the acknowledgement of life with no guarantees. Such intellectual and emotional energy only comes from experiences that, taken as a whole, form a sacred living text designed for human maturity.

My answer to the question “what are congregations for” may not be the same as yours. I know that my answer reflects specific religious commitments. My purpose is not to persuade you to agree with my response. My purpose is to encourage you to think (and pray) about your response. For the sake of your congregation, consider the deep structure of its purpose. Don’t think organizationally. Think in terms of what your congregation makes happen with and for people that is unique, elemental, and ultimately about life itself.

Congregations magazine, 2012-09-11
2012 Issue 3, Number 3