By Terry Maples
Because I sometimes fly to distant cities as part of my work, I purchased a suitcase to meet airline carry-on luggage specifications. My new suitcase has a regular zipper to access my belongings; it has a second zipper to allow the bag to expand and make room for additional items.
I wonder if my suitcase is a useful metaphor for the church? Each congregation is a container. Each holds formal and informal structures, beliefs, interpretations, practices, denominational affiliations (or not), and patterns that determine the flexibility or pliability of that particular body. Some congregations seem ready to embrace change while others resist it.
I served many years as a local church educator, and I readily confess my conviction that individual Christ-followers and congregations must expand and stay open to new perspectives and directions. Members come and go as a result of their perception of the congregational container. People desire to be in a place compatible with their beliefs, values, convictions and expectations. When a congregation self-defines (states overtly who it is or why it moves in a particular direction), people respond differently. Some stay, and some leave because they perceive the congregational container has become too pliable or not pliable enough.
Who or what influences how much a congregational container is allowed to expand? The answer to the question is, of course, contextual. If we are honest we admit congregations usually only stretch until tension arises.
I have observed: 1) Pastoral staff and key lay leaders often strongly influence how flexible the congregational container becomes; 2) Denominational partners often communicate expectations about the form and shape of congregations affiliated with them; 3) Cultural expectations often drive how open a congregation is to being shaped and formed beyond current practices.
Congregations are spiritual entities designed to be Spirit-driven, constantly listening for God’s voice and direction. God’s mission is the same for all congregations, but each community of faith must determine how to uniquely connect with and express that mission in its own context.
One of the most important aspects of a congregation’s journey with God is recognizing the need for corporate spiritual discernment. Apart from the hard work of discerning identity and calling, congregations tend to make decisions in alignment with current practice without considering the possibility the Spirit might be blowing in a different direction.
What additional factors determine whether a congregation expands or contracts its container? Consider a few possibilities:
• Many church members like things the way they are. Some call this contentment; some call it being stuck. Preserving homeostasis (familiar patterns that give balance) becomes top priority. Set ways of being and doing church are comfortable and ultimately become institutionalized. At that point, the congregation self-limits what it can become or do for the kingdom. Anything new under consideration is expected to be congruent with existing understanding of “how we do church.”
• Congregational leaders who are absolutely certain about how to be and do church automatically place limits on how the Spirit might choose to use the body of Christ to change the world. The place I see this most clearly is with church “programming.” Many congregations continue to hold onto old models of doing church long after their effectiveness wanes. In some situations, certitude causes people of God to unwittingly say “no” to God’s gracious invitation to try something new and different that could be powerful and life-giving for the congregation and the world.
• Some congregants’ perceptual framework may hold a congregation hostage. Their fixed understanding of the life of faith — what God can or cannot do — may be distorted. Is it possible our framework for understanding the Christian life may be inconsistent with God’s purposes and impede personal and/or communal transformation?
• Many churches struggle to engage in substantive conversations about who they are and where they sense God calling them. Does fear of conflict keep us from talking about important matters of faith and practice? Might providing safe places to acknowledge and wrestle with our various understandings open congregations to consider new Spirit-empowered possibilities?
• Some strive to control the flexibility of the congregational container by equating faithfulness to God with preserving “right beliefs.” While what we believe certainly is important, Scripture gives top priority to getting our relationships with God and with neighbor right. Our beliefs inform our practice, but we are what we do.
• Many church folks read Scripture to glean information instead of reading Scripture for formation, i.e. allowing God’s revelation to shape and form us in the image of Christ for the sake of the world. Naturally, we read Scripture through lenses biased by personal experiences. That approach often pre-determines what we interpret God saying to us. Formational reading of Scripture, however, allows the Bible to read us and reveals gaps in our attitudes and actions. Formational reading of Scripture helps us set aside our own ideas so we are able to listen for God’s voice.
• The prophetic role of pastors is being greatly diminished by the uncivil discourse in today’s world. Many pastors fear speaking truth into their contexts lest it be perceived as “political.” The prophetic nature of proclamation is weakened when congregants erect barriers around what the pastor preaches.
How much, then, can or should a congregational container stretch and expand? The spiritual answer is: “Only God knows!” If it sounds too mystical to give consent and control to the initiative of the Holy Spirit, think of it this way: Congregational spiritual vitality requires “a posture of willingness (rather than willfulness), faith and trust (as opposed to fear and caution), surrender (rather than attempts at control), and consent to awakening (rather than a return to sleep)” according to David G. Benner in Spirituality and the Awakening Self.
So, reflect upon your congregation: Who or what determines the size or shape of its container? Are leaders simultaneously pulling in different directions? In what ways does the congregation need to expand to impact its community? To what degree is the Spirit invited and trusted to shape and form individuals and the congregation?