Saturday, March 26, 2011

Being Church

I am leading a study of spiritual gifts in the church using materials I've been working on for more than 25 years -- since seminary really.  I also just began reading Eugene Peterson's new memoir called The Pastor.  I'll be writing a review of the book later on, but near the beginning of the book, in a reflection on the similarities between church and his father's butcher shop -- that should get your attention -- he wrote:

I am quite sure now that the way I as a pastor came to understand congregation had its beginning in the "congregational" atmosphere of our butcher shop.  Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them.  A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged.  It must never be a place where a person is labeled.  It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated.  Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly in Jesus's name.  A place where dignity is conferred.  (Peterson, The Pastor, p. 41).   

I'll let you check out the book, if you want to know why Peterson uses this analogy, but the point I'd like to raise here concerns the nature of congregation.  What happens in this place we call church?  Note that Peterson defines congregation in terms of people, not building, institutions, or even clergy.  It's people who make up the church, the rest is simply context and support for the people of God to worship and serve God and love one's neighbor.  But also note the importance of church being a place of safety and dignity.  It is a place where "dignity is conferred."  I realize this is describing the ideal.  We know that churches as places harbor gossip, that people can find themselves unwelcome in Jesus' name, and dignity isn't always conferred, but this is the calling, this is the purpose.  So my question is -- how do we become this place, knowing that we are human and we will fail, but how do we move toward such a reality?

3 comments:

Deb said...

Bob, thanks so much for the gift of this lens.
We often talk about the communion table being at "the center of things," (especially, Disciples of Christ use that language). But we fall short, I think, if we only envision the table as a physical structure sitting in the middle of the sanctuary.
Instead, it helps me to see the table as that conceptual place that is at the heart of who we are and what we do. This brings in those feelings like the butcher shop idea, or the television series Cheers that extends the dream of being, "a place where everybody knows your name."

At the online church that I serve, we've had to think beyond the physical image of The Table because we don't have one physical table that we all share.
One of our values that has emerged is what we call "The Table Promise." The Table Promise means to us that we look to the table as that place where we are all called out of grace to come and be fed. We make that 'promise' to keep coming back as we are called, taking our place in humility before our Host, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with each sister and brother there. We don't stand at the door deciding who can come in or branding anyone, because that is not our job. We also sit where our Host bids us to sit.
What happens at the table then is transformational. As we pass the food along to each other, and see each other one there (whether we came in liking them or not) reflected through Christ's eyes, and we hear their stories, we are transformed. We come away forever changed, and best able to receive God's promise for us.

Is this idea similar to what you are talking about?
Deb Phelps
DisciplesNet Church

Chris Smith said...

One of the first steps in this direction, it seems to me, is the recognition that our primary identity is in Christ (and thus his body, ie, this community). You, of course, have argued this point well in ULTIMATE ALLEGIANCE...

But also, in being baptized into this community, we have died to ourselves (and, of course, in this fallen world of selfish lusts, are having to die daily), and in so dying, we learn to put others' needs/wants/dignity before our own. Learning to be the church is, in our age, largely a task of unlearning the selfish individualism of the larger culture, and with the brothers and sisters of our local congregations to begin to regain some sense of corporate identity (within the contexts of our faith traditions, place, etc.)


IMO, that's where we start...

Chris Smith

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

First,

Chris, thanks for your thoughts on the need to unlearn the "selfish individualism" of our culture. It is a reminder that church is more than a gathering of individuals focusing on what we can get out of the relitious transactions we call church.

Second, to Deb's point -- I appreciate your thoughts as well. I had a lengthy conversation witih Kimberly Knight who leads a church in Second Life about being church in a virtual/online setting. I understand the opportunities this setting provides for being welcoming and knowing people who otherwise either can't or won't come into physical proximity.

My question still remains -- how do we move beyond the conceptual to true engagement if our connections are virtual.

As I ask the question I'm wondering about the relationships I build online through Facebook, etc. In what way are these true friendships?

And so I see the value, but I'm concerned that we're ending up with a docetic sense of the church. I'd welcome your response to that feeling.