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?