Congregational leaders must approach their ministry, decision-making process, and institutional management with the understanding that a congregation is, at heart, more community than organization in nature. The congregation’s primary enterprise is the shaping of the faith of its members and of those whom it reaches out to in witness and ministry; the ways that congregations do that are primarily through communal, not administrative or programmatic, means.
Because members of a congregation center their life together on rituals of meaning and confession, they are not just communities, but communities of faith. As in all communities, practices and values in congregations are negotiated, shared, modified over time, and inculcated into the life structure of the participants. The reasons why individuals join a congregation are varied, but common, having everything to do with meeting the needs—actual or perceived—people believe can be provided only through the shared, grounding religious experiences that a congregation as a faith community offers. Congregations are genuine faith communities because they are places where people come together to participate in and practice their shared religious values that inform both corporate and individual identity.
In a faith community, language serves a formative function and is one indicator that a congregation is a genuine community of faith. That is, the community’s idiom—consisting of its vocabulary, patterns of speech, spoken rituals and rites (like blessings and prayers)—functions in ways that shape the faith of its members. For idiom to be formative, the language that is used by a local congregation must have two components: (1) it must be grounded in shared experiences; and (2) it must remain sufficiently religiously distinctive as to express the community’s peculiar identity.
The shared experiences of the congregation may include part of the language of a larger denomination or faith tradition; more important, however, they must include the localized story of the particular faith tradition. The local stories that arise out of the members’ shared experiences are what carry their interpretation of the meaning of God’s activity in the life of the community and of its members. Furthermore, these stories are localized in part because they are told in the idiom of the local congregation. This is why seminary professors tell seminarians who aspire to be preachers that, while a responsible hermeneutical and exegetical study of the biblical text to be preached is necessary, when it comes to using the academic and ecclesiastical tools of the trade they must “leave them in the study” and not carry them into the pulpit. The congregational leader must use the language of the functional theology of the community that is grounded in the contextual shared experiences.
Giving attention to and shaping its own language is one of the primary ways that a congregation acquires an identity. Creating opportunities for congregational members to do this by “telling our story” must be both valued and implemented as a critical educational function, which means that congregational leaders must program and schedule regular and frequent opportunities for the community members to hear and tell their stories of interpretive meaning.
The distinctiveness of the congregational language is also essential for faith formation. Uncritical attempts to borrow language from popular culture or from another tradition, ungrounded in shared unique religious experiences, in an attempt to “accommodate” seekers or potential members may prove to have the opposite effect. Imposing such language on the faith community serves only to deny the distinctive identity of the congregation. Further, the power of language leaves open the temptation to adopt the values that the borrowed language conveys—some of which may be foreign or even antagonistic to the congregation’s values.
A second indication that a congregation is a real community is that it facilitates ways for its members to be together. Congregations provide spaces and places to gather around activities, programs, and events that allow people to spend time together doing things they find meaningful. The huge investments that congregations make in buildings and campuses are not just institutional symbols of power or affluence; they also shape how people live out their faith and relate to each other. In the same way, congregational programs, regardless of their overtly announced agenda (for instance, worship, learning, mission activities, administration, or business), tap into the congregation’s hidden need for spending time together in mutually shared experiences.
The dilemma faced by contemporary American congregations, however, is the tension between the separateness and togetherness forces so prevalent in the culture. People yearn after and seek out groups that will make them feel at home in a complex and confusing world. At the same time, they resist any group that makes demands or attempts to impose group ethical norms or makes prophetic calls to accountability. Congregations live in this cultural tension and spend a lot of time attempting to be genuine communities of faith while juggling these contradictory forces of togetherness and separateness.
As a result, congregations are tempted to “define community down” as they organize themselves as religious institutions. Some narrow the scope of who belongs in the community by overtly inviting members who are alike in some way, like those of a particular ethnicity, or socioeconomic level, or similar educational background. Other congregations stress a “community-as-support-group” approach, expecting their members to develop close interpersonal relationships in an atmosphere of emotional support and mutual encouragement.
But being together in community involves more than a focus on people’s needs. Community implies mutuality. It is in this sense that faith communities with their religious traditions offer a truer image: community as a gathering that enlarges, challenges, and completes the individual’s personal vision by providing a place where both their strengths and their needs are welcomed. A community is more than another name for intimate self-disclosure and emotional support. A community creates opportunities for being together where the possibilities of shared values can move members to action in the public square, undertaken in a context of mutual concern and inspired by a corporate vision of the Church’s mission in the world.
Creating a shared life together requires that congregational leaders address some fundamental questions about the congregation as community. During the course of a congregation’s lifespan and of its development, these fundamental questions need to be revisited:
• What is the major purpose of this group? What is its mission and vision?
• How fully are members involved in the life of the church community?
• Is intimacy encouraged?
• Is the leadership function shared or is it delegated to one person or position?
• How effective is the community in teaching, sharing, and perpetuating its values and beliefs?
• How are group behavior and norms regulated?
• How obligated do members feel to each other and to the group?
• How are group members evaluated as to their Christian discipleship, growth, and participation?
• How effective is the community in inviting and assimilating new members?
• What does it mean to belong to this community? How does it happen and what is assumed and expected?
These fundamental questions are too important to merely assume that all members understand them. The answers to these questions hint at the ways that the hidden lives of congregations
are actively operating under the surface. Therefore, if congregational leaders fail to understand how these questions are manifested in the congregation, they will also lack understanding as to how well their congregation is functioning as an authentic Christian community.
The congregation as a church is a local body of believers whose religious hope is expressed in their life together and in their ministries of service and worship. Because the mission of a congregation includes both internal and external ends (a movement inward and a movement outward), the church must organize and develop the social forms of a faith community. Faith communities, congregations included, must nourish and express the communion that exists among its members: from the shared meaning and identity that make them a distinctive group, to participation in the common mission that moves their members into the world. Ultimately, the congregation’s mission is that of the Church: to witness to the world the saving presence of God among us. There is no greater vehicle for that than a community.
Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics , copyright © 2004 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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