In the Shakespeare play, when Juliet suggests that a rose by any other name would be just as sweet, she dismisses the formative power of one’s name. She urges Romeo to claim his own personal identity and charism, or special gift, rather than be dominated by the name Montague—to jettison his name, for it is no part of him. I take exception. My experience confirms a theme found in storytelling through the ages that people and institutions become their names and live them out in daily activities. I have seen it in my own family. Two of our sons are each named for a different grandfather and have taken on subtle characteristics from each respective side of the family.
Can it also be true that congregations become their names? Does Christ the Servant Church live out its own life any differently than Christ the King Church? Does being a “first church” create subtle or not so subtle attitudes and postures? Does the name Independent Presbyterian Church create a confusion of identity and authority, given the fact that the very essence of Presbyterianism is connectional? Do churches that bear the names of saints or biblical characters take on their charisms? What about Trinity churches? Will they function any differently from churches with a different name, even though both affirm a trinitarian theology and spirituality? I think they will tend to interpret their stories more often in that light. But that remains an open question. In seeking congregational stories that connect with the seasons of the church year and name God’s presence as a loving God, suffering but risen servant, and empowering Spirit, I am drawn to churches named Trinity. I want to see if and how they live out their name.
Holy Trinity Orthodox Church was birthed in 1917 by Russian immigrants in a neighborhood known as Russian Hill in Kansas City, Kansas. The cornerstone of the original church, which was constructed that same year, identifies it as a “Russian Greek Orthodox Church.” Today the relocated church in Overland Park, Kansas, is related to the Orthodox Church in America. Over the past nine decades Holy Trinity Orthodox Church has grown from a small Russian-speaking parish to one whose two hundred members are primarily American-born, English-speaking converts to Orthodoxy. They identify themselves as “a growing church community worshiping God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the 2000-year-old Orthodox Christian Tradition.”
The story of how this small, struggling, ethnic neighborhood church became a vital faith community could be placed in any season of the church year. The congregation lives out a strong trinitarian consciousness in worship, spiritual formation, and outreach. Their central worship experience of the Pascha, the feast of the resurrection, could place them at Easter. Their attention to the Holy Spirit in liturgy and life could locate their story at Pentecost. But the real story of their emergence and transformation locates them in the Advent-Christmas cycle. They traversed a long Advent-like journey of waiting, hoping, and yearning that began in 1978 with the assignment of a young priest and culminated some twenty-four years later with the celebration of the Pascha in a new beautiful and spacious worship space, what they call a “temple.”
Led by their new priest in 1978 to complete a successful renovation, the congregation experienced some growth and intended to remain in their original location. But they were becoming more of a regional church and less a neighborhood church to which members could walk. Their successful renovation proved that they had capabilities that extended beyond surviving on the hill. This accomplishment became a sign, giving a small, dispirited band of mostly second and some third generation worshipers courage to look ahead and dream a larger future. After a journey that called them to let go of their cherished location and risk the burden of building in a new place, during Holy Week of 2002, the folks who had yearned, worked, and waited for many long years entered the sacred space of their beautiful, spacious new temple for worship.
If we were to extend this story into Epiphany, we would see the light of Christ extending into the world around Holy Trinity. The congregation did not experience explosive growth, as many megachurches do, but a steady growth that went deep. They now are a congregation of Smiths, Joneses, and Johnsons as well as Ethiopians, Serbians, Russians, and Greeks. They currently attract young seekers from mainline Protestant denominations. One new young convert describes her transition: “As a little girl I only associated Easter with pretty little new dresses. But when I experienced the sadness and mourning of Holy Week, the rejoicing of Pascha, the empty tomb, the community celebration of the Agape Feast, I felt at home. This was the place for me.”
Trinity Lutheran Church of Mission, Kansas, a suburb of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, has gained the reputation for and adopted a self-image of pushing and busting boundaries. Their current mission statement proudly proclaims, “We are relentless in knowing Christ and fearless in making him known.” This attitude is nothing new to them, for they have operated this way since the congregation was founded in the late 1940s. Pushing and busting boundaries is their spiritual DNA.
Celebrations at Christmas draw this congregation into a keen awareness of a loving and giving God. Three trees grace the sanctuary, all joined to a star connected to the trees by streamers. Stars, moon, and sun decorate one tree in testimony of the creative power of God. Crowns of thorns decorate the second tree in tribute to the Son, who gave his life for the salvation of the world. Doves and seashells decorate the third tree as evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit, who draws people into discipleship through the waters of baptism. People who enter Trinity Lutheran Church at Christmas will be welcomed by the Bethlehem crèche located in the large narthex, will observe three windows and three pillars in the sanctuary, and finally will focus on the three trees. They cannot avoid noticing the symbolism and commitment to and expression of trinitarian faith.
When worshipers hear the story of the magi at Christmas and beyond, they know boundaries have been broken. God’s gift transcends provincialism. Even as the magi returned by another route (Matt. 2:12), this church invites its worshipers to explore paths for worship, witness, and service never before traversed. They emphasize mission and outreach immediately after celebrating Christmas. That period is not observed as ordinary dead time to get ready for Lent and Easter. On the Sunday following the day of Epiphany, they are invited to remember their own baptism as they consider the baptism of Jesus. Baptism begins the journey into discipleship. It is a time to take hold and care about the world Jesus came to redeem—and to care while taking new paths.
Their pastor cites the explanation of the Trinity in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.
In the first article, Creation, God the Father creates, supports, and protects body and soul. Therefore, we are thankful. In the second article, Redemption, Jesus, God’s Son, redeems and sets us free. In the third article, Sanctification, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, sanctifies, and enlightens us. So, when we confess the creed, we engage in the practice of telling God’s story. And we are telling our own story as well—within our own spiritual DNA. We take God’s story and our story to the world, where we practice and tell an ongoing story.
This Trinitarian identity, which goes farther and deeper than all the threefold symbols in the entryway and sanctuary, propels our members to live out the congregation’s motto, “Relentless in knowing Christ and fearless in making him known.”
This affirmation of faith and purpose statement will be enacted over and over again with a congregation that sees itself as an Epiphany church, choosing to return by another way after they have encountered and celebrated the love of God in Christmas.
Adapted from The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories by Charles M. Olsen, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry.
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations
by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of a dozen congregations that have been on a pilgrimage to
vitality—retrieving and reworking Christian practice, tradition, and narrative. The book reads as a series of first-hand dispatches from pastors of congregations on the road to an emerging style of congregational vitality, one centered on the creative and intentional reappropriation of traditional Christian practices.
What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church
by Anthony B. Robinson
Theology can be a loaded word for mainline Protestant congregations. It often suggests the dogmatic or implies fault lines for conflict. But when unleashed from its narrow academic sense, “theology” offers a powerful way to get at many of the issues that affect the health and vitality of congregations. Defining theology as the “core convictions” that help a congregation understand its common perspective and shared identity, Tony Robinson examines the problems that occur when congregations are reluctant to focus on theology and are unsure of their beliefs.
In a culture marked by a consumerist approach to nearly everything, it’s little wonder that there is much confusion about who and what the church is supposed to be. Barger argues passionately for congregations to reexamine what it means to be an authentic church in a culture where authenticity is hard to come by. He exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church, which is grounded in Christ and the resurrection.
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