In my parish ministry days, preaching and leading worship were central elements in a weekly rhythm. I found that those leadership roles gave me a distinct vantage point from which to view the congregation. From pulpit or communion table I could see the people and watch their behavior. I observed members weeping quietly, others sitting on the edge of their seats and nodding in agreement. Some sang at the top of their lungs; others closed the new hymnal in disgust. Some sat with arms crossed in judgment; others looked out the window. Still others nodded off.
All sorts of signals were sent in my direction. What did they mean? Were they meant for me at all? Like many colleagues, I played mental games trying to interpret the signals. Tears—did they signal the death of a loved one, a fracture in the family, a job loss? Arms folded in judgment—did they signal disagreement with something I had said? Or were they left over from a testy congregational meeting? Were those folded arms defensive barriers erected against a threatening world? The worshiper gazing out the window—was she bored, pursuing her own spiritual journey, or trapped in the pressures of her to-do list?
Interpreting the Signals
I knew the signals were important, but they were not easily read. I made it a priority to follow up—to step down from my exalted vantage point and draw closer to people, to engage the signal-senders in conversation, to learn what was going on in their minds and lives. The rest of my work week was often spent trying to get a clearer reading of the people who sent ambiguous messages. Like most pastors, I learned that it was risky to attempt interpretation alone—I needed more information, especially from the signal-senders themselves.
I found myself wishing for an easier way to read people’s minds. Was there a magic truth serum I could sneak into the church coffee? Or a microchip I could implant that would abet mind-reading? So far no magic technology has come to my aid. But I do know that members will talk, given encouragement and opportunity. And I have discovered that many of them think carefully about their vocations and the ministry of their congregations.
Some even write about their church experience. Diana Butler Bass, a gifted writer, has written a book that lets readers in on what may be going on in the minds of some laity. Her book is what Walker Percy would call “a message in a bottle” from a realm of consciousness that often seems distant and unknowable.
Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith & Citizenship (Jossey-Bass, 2004) is a spiritual lament, written by a member thinking deeply about the mission and character of her congregation and denomination. Because she dares to write down her reflections on her faith journey, she gives us a window into the thought world of the people in our congregations. Certainly not every church member thinks the ways she does. Many do not let the rest of us in on what they think.
Letting Us In on the Message
But Bass lets us in. In fact, she is spending her reflective space wrestling with the soul of the Christian church. One moment she is considering the aftermath of 9/11. Then she is worrying that many, perhaps most, American congregations are furthering a revival of American civil religion rather than offering prophetic criticism as this nation drifts into triumphalism, the temptations of empire, hyperpatriotism, and saber-rattling. Drawing upon St. Augustine’s teaching about the City of Man and the City of God, she challenges congregations to examine their calling in the world. When she talks about Osama bin Laden with her five-year-old daughter and teaches the child about forgiveness and praying for one’s enemies, she invites all congregants to examine their responses to evil—are they responses of fear and power, or of faith and discipleship? When Bass ponders two favorite hymns of post-9/11 America, “God Bless America” and “Amazing Grace,” she takes us into the confusion of church and state and shows how it is manifested in our worship services and public ceremonies. Almost in one breath we sing about a generic American religion and a particular Protestant faith. She challenges us to know the difference between homeland security (a national quest that is an impossible dream) and the household of God’s peace (a world-transforming reality).
As I read, I found myself questioning our sometimes facile, stereotypical readings of worshipers. Maybe they are not day-dreaming, schedule-planning, or turning inward. Maybe they are engaged in life-and-death arguments about the meaning of faith, about the great questions of our time, about the possibility of hope in an anxious time, about their vocations in the world. Maybe they are searching for a way to help their congregations seize the great opportunity for ministry that came in the wake of 9/11. Maybe they already know that larger possibilities await our congregations in this historical moment—larger than any yet widely articulated.
Bass reminds us of a world of belief and doubt in struggle. Her book is an invitation—no, a demand—that we find ways to enter the thought worlds of the people of God. She reminds us that great struggles are taking place in the minds and hearts of those who frequent congregations. Those who lead must find ways to read these lives, minds, and hearts. We must help the people we serve to give expression to their reflections. We must be prepared to listen, to read, and to engage the questions they are working on and the perceptions they are developing. In so doing we may receive important signals about who we are and what we are called to do.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.