Saturday, February 7, 2015

What Is a Congregation? Or, Let Me Show You Some Shapes

Many thanks to my wonderful wife for making this for me on Canva!





This week I want to participate in the first round of a three-part BLOGFORCE Challenge from the Acts 8 Moment (click on the banner to learn more about the challenge and the organization). But the first thing I want to describe is how the prompt is phrased. The prompt said "What is the mission of the congregation? How should it be structured to serve its mission?" And so what I need to do is describe how I do not consider myself any kind of expert on how to structure a congregation... I don't think I have the gifts of management to determine how to position a group of people like that. Or at least I don't feel I have the gifts to describe it as an action plan. What I do is describe the shape of the thing, as I see it in my head. And in that way, there are two images that I want to describe. 

The first is to simply say that a congregation is a community of believers. In Episcopal circles, a congregation is usually united together by common baptismal vows (although I will admit that I am not inclined to turn a stranger away from the community because they have not been baptized). Through those vows, we have been given a mission. And since each of us are a member of the Church, we are each a part of the Body of Christ. "Christ has... no hands on earth now but yours" (which is commonly attributed to St. Teresa of Avila). The part of the baptismal covenant that speaks most powerfully to me with the charge "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" Whenever I renew my vows, I respond to this charge most enthusiastically, "I will, with God's help!"

But regardless of which part of the baptismal covenant speaks most powerfully to each person, it is a means by which we are are united as a community of believers in Christ. So if there is any action or structure to be had by a congregation, I think it must recognize the vows we have all made. 

The second image that I want to hold up is this idea I call "parish respiration." It is an idea that I have written about before on my blog, and I'm also pleased to say that Bp. Dan Edwards of Nevada has also written about it (although I will draw your attention to the fact that I wrote my piece first...). This idea of parish respiration is also one which is very much less about action plans or strategic plans, and much more interested in the how of community life in a congregation. It has everything to do wit the liturgy of mission.

Okay, so first a couple of ideas underlying this: first, we are the Church. The Church is not a building, nor is it a far-off organization. In fact (to circle back on terms I've already used in this blog) the Church is the community of all believers (so I guess a congregation is a smaller, local subset of the Church). Meanwhile, the actual building is what I call the parish (and before any church geeks jump down my throat, yes, I know that a parish is technically a geographical area served by a church organization... work with me, here). 

So how is it that a parish can have any kind of respiration? Well remember that the third person of the Holy Trinity is the Holy Spirit, which in Greek is pneuma, the same word used for "breath" (so you see what I did there?) and the Holy Spirit is usually said to be the person who leads us to take any particular action. 

Now let me describe the image for you: at the beginning of a typical Episcopal service, there is a call to worship. And as that bell is rung or those words are said, the parish breaths in; the Church gathers into the building for community worship. Part of that worship is nourishment and renewal in the Eucharistic celebration. But at the end of that liturgy, the deacon dismisses the Church to go out into the world to continue living into its baptismal covenant. This is where the parish breathes out. The Holy Spirit leads us out to mingle with other people in the world, to seek Christ in them, to serve them, to be Christ to them. And when the time is right, the parish breaths back in and the Church is collected again for community worship. 

Between these two images: realizing that any given congregation is a community of believers, and realizing that the life of a congregation is more expansive than just what happens in a particular building on Sunday mornings, I think there is great potential for all congregations to structure themselves in such a way to make sure that they are engaging with God's mission.

Let me end on this note. There is a quote from Ed Stetzer that I think encapsulates this whole discussion. He has said "It's not that God's church has a mission, but rather that God's mission has a church."

Consider yourself dismissed. Go out and be the Church.

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Do either of these images resonate with you? Whether you have found your way to my blog by way of the Acts 8 Moment BLOGFORCE Challenge, or by any other means, I would love to hear your reflections if you are willing to share them in the comments below. Otherwise, please join with me in conversation on Twitter or Facebook. Additionally, please subscribe to my blog by email with the subscription bar in the navigation menu on the right-hand side of this page, and/or send me a friend request/follow me to make that social connection and participate in a deeper dialogue that way. Thanks!