General Assemblies -- Disciples and the Doctrine of the Church
Later this week Cheryl and I, along with several thousand other Disciples of Christ clergy and lay persons will travel to Columbus, Ohio to attend our denomination's General Assembly. We have a good group of people going from Central Woodward Christian Church, several of whom will be attending their first General Assembly. I have attended all but one General Assembly since going for the first time in 1995 (Denver). While I will admit that I don't go for the business part of the experience, I do believe that the General Assembly -- a biennial gathering -- is an essential part of our denomination's life together. Unlike many mainline denominations, every congregation can send delegates (all clergy with standing along with at least two lay members can vote) to the Assembly. Since we don't have a creed or a true hierarchy (we have a General Minister/President, but that person's power is largely persuasive and not administrative), the General Assembly is that one piece of the denominational experience that binds us together as a community of faith. When we gather at the Assembly, more than the business meetings (over which one of my close friends will preside this time around), it is the fellowship in the halls and meals along with worship that binds us together.
Word is out that we are well below the needed number of attendees for the Columbus Assembly. In fact the deficit is sufficient enough that it is deemed wise not to sign contracts for the 2019 General Assembly, which I understand is scheduled to meet in Des Moines, Iowa. I realize that attendance at the General Assembly is expensive, especially if you live far from the host city. Many of my West Coast friends rarely attend due, I'm assuming to distance. The hotels aren't cheap, but they're not overly expensive (staying in the contracted hotels is important because it reduces the costs of the convention center, and thus registration).
Could it be that the very existence of this gathering is threatened? If so, what would this mean for us as a denomination?
We could, perhaps, meet every three years or even four years. But if we did that, it might cause us to become even more fragmented than we already are. We could meet online, but while online communication is great, it's not the same as sitting down across from someone over coffee. Looking the eyes of another that's different! I for one would miss that opportunity to put flesh on my relationships.
I don't have a solution to offer, however, I do think we need to rethink our theology of the church. When we went through restructure in the late 1960s we envisioned bringing the various entities that made up the Disciples of Christ -- congregations, state societies (regions), and agencies -- into one community of faith. We extended the definition of church to cover regions and general manifestations (we don't use the word national because the Disciples of Christ as a denomination covers both the United States and Canada). My concern is that we haven't really bought into that premise. We understand how the congregation manifests church, but how do regions and General elements manifest church? We gave ministerial titles to state secretaries (regional ministers) and to the administrative officer of the General Church (General Minister/President). We also assumed that when we gather at Regional Assemblies and General Assemblies that this constitutes "Church." How do we mark this as church? We gather for worship and share the Lord's Supper together.
I am looking forward to sharing worship and fellowship in Columbus with brothers and sisters from across the country and beyond. I hope we will continue to gather every two years somewhere to continue this act of being church. At the same time, I think we need to have some serious theological discussions of what it means to be church in an increasingly post-denominational age.
I will conclude by noting that I have written a book that will be published by Wipf and Stock this fall [titled: Freedom in Covenant: Reflections on the Distinctive Beliefs and Practices of the
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ))], which explores some of our core values, suggesting that these values can help connect us together. My hope is that we can begin to have that conversation that will help bind us together as a community of faith!