They are more than just nice… they are essential to our lives.
I pay close attention… I am drawn to them on an instinctual level; I feel pulled to understand them. I am a Christian; a disciple of Jesus who reads and studies the Bible. It is clear to me that one of the over-arching themes found there is that of relationships and community; more specifically, God’s relationship to us, our relationship to each other, and the importance of restoring to the community those who have been excluded. It is not good that we should be alone. God said that.
We are wired to be in relationships and community with each other. Something that was obviously important to God should be important to us too. So I pay attention.
I also pay attention to the church. Not just my church, but The Church. I pay attention to the relationships that people have with The Church, and to what impact The Church has on our world, and on our communities through the extended arms of individual congregations. As a leader in one of those congregations, I am particularly tuned into the strength of our congregational community and the network of relationships within it.
Like many others who pay attention, I am affected by the trends and the recurring statements that “The Church is dying.” Each time I hear this, it stings.
I don’t want The Church to die.
But then I remember...I don’t actually believe it will.
Yes, The Church will change, and is changing, but God has been in relationship with humanity since the very beginning, and the changing of our institutions will not bring that relationship to an end. Seriously… who do we think we are?!
There are many theories out there about what to what to do regarding the changing of The Church. This phrasing, to my ears, is part of the problem… being The Church is our response to the work of the Holy Spirit in our world. This isn’t something that we do… it’s something that we live in response to.
I accept that The Church is changing… and how should I respond? Me. What can I personally do? Well… when my life gets uncertain, I go back to the basics. I tend to the strength of my foundations.
The foundations of Christianity are found in our relationship to God, and in God’s desire that we be in relationship with each other, and that both of those relationships be rooted in love. I have doubled down on my work in my congregation as one of the curators of the community. I use my connections to help others build connections. I focus on projects that give families the opportunities to come together, both socially and around the goal of deepening our relationship to Christ. I help people learn how to be welcoming to new faces; I don’t assume that being welcoming comes naturally to us just because we say we are. I try new things… lots of new things.
I focus particularly on ways to lift up the value that each person brings to the community, especially the very youngest who have for years been lovingly excluded from our worship services as a cultural practice. We told ourselves that we were offering a worship experience for them that they would understand, to which I wonder… who among us truly understands the incredible mystery and awe that is the resurrected Christ?
Shouldn’t we model for our kids that we respond to God’s call to be in a relationship with us by coming together in worship as a full community, kids included? Shouldn’t we show our kids what it looks like to be in relationship with each other as a body of Christ? Shouldn’t we model for those who are growing up in our congregations that our strength as a community can be seen in how we minister to each other? And then in how we minister to our communities? And then to the world?
I think so.
I have this theory that the network of relationships in a community is like the rebar in our foundations. Connecting to others means becoming part of the foundation in a really important way. It means that the responsibility and care for the community is spread across the strength of the full body, and provides the foundation for the ministries that the body feels called to enter into. It also means that those who are not part of the rebar are either being fully supported by it, or are merely near it. This works for a time, but the foundation of the community will only be strengthened by those who are in proximity to it when they are able to become fully integrated into it.
Kids have strength to add too! Where I serve, our littlest ones are charged with praying for someone – a prayer partner. This not only teaches them how to pray for others, but the very importance of it as a responsibility, and a way for them to contribute to the strength of the community.
We also bring the young members of our congregational community into the very center of the life of our worship; not as tokens or as part of a special “youth service,” but as regular participants serving along older youth and adults. We have elementary students who are in the regular rotations for communion assistants, readers, ushers, and greeters.
There are few things in worship that I find more stirring than watching a young child serve communion to their church family. It feels important to me. It is important to share the responsibilities of our worship practices with children. Let the little children come to me…
It has taken a few years for this to feel normal, but that’s good. The goal is to create a congregational culture where all members know they have something important to contribute, and that they are valued for that contribution.
All contribute, and in doing so, all are building and strengthening their relationship to each other and to the larger community as a body of Christ. They are secure in that relationship and the foundational strength that it brings, which allows them to welcome in new faces to the fold, knowing that these new faces bring added gifts, talents, and strength. They are secure in the strength of the body, which allows them to reach out for new ways of following the Spirit.
We live in response to the Holy Spirit which is challenging us to be The Church, now… not 50 years ago. Faced with uncertain and changing times, let us strengthen our foundations.
A strong foundation – a church built on a rock. That’s the goal.
Strength through relationships.
A community of believers.