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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What's a Congregation for?

In my book (a Ph.D. disseration I never published), I argue that there is an intrinsic relationship between the life and being of the Triune God and the life and being of humanity. The metaphor I chose to use (the Divine Congregation and the Human Congregation) tries to get at something I believe is essential to Christian faith and life.
For me, it is impossible to distinguish between the "one" and the "Three" in the doctrine of God (we call that the Holy Trinity), and between a person and a community united in faith in God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit (we call those congregations). So, for example, when the Spirit leads Jesus out into the desert after he is baptized by John, and Jesus prays to the Father...if Peter walks by at 100 yards what does he see? Does he see three "beings" of some kind having a conversation; or, does he see Jesus talking to himself; or, does he just see a big cloud of unknowing?
Just as the One God, Three persons unity of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is a mystery, so too the human congregation and the people who populate it is/are a mystery. That is, when a person in a congregation receives grace through some event (say the reception of the eucharist--holy communion) does everybody in the congregation receive it too? If not, how can we explain the unity we have in God, as if God is somehow divisible in human ways? But if we say we all receive grace, how come some folks don't seem to acknowledge or live in that grace? So maybe we are not united in God? This is the kind of stuff that drives me to keep Knob Creek nearby!
Since this kind of questioning seems to "get" us nowhere, practioners of Christianity have looked for other ways to talk about the community bonded in Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Spirit of God. (Many professional theologians have also jumped ship here as well, prefering to explore questions of epistemology rather than ontology as a way to get deeper into the ways of God. I'll never forget my doctoral adviser's first question to me: "Do you want to write theology, or just write about how to do theology?") This leads practioners to find the meaning and purpose of congregations under disguise as sects, as alternative communities, as economic engines, as corporate marketers, or just about any other type of community we have...
But is there something unique about a Christian congregation that makes it different from every other type of community? Before you rush to an answer, consider some of these things:
First, if you say a congregation worships God, in the this case the Christian triune God, what about other communities that worship God as well, such as nursing homes, hospitals, some civic clubs, and what then are Christian congregations different using that criterion?
Secondly, if you say a Christian congregation is unique because God calls it, your doctrine of creation is somewhat lacking. For Christians, God calls every person and community into life and being, and a congregation is no different...
Thirdly, (and lastly for our purposes only) the public that makes up a Christian congregation is the same public that makes up a town or a city; and therefore, the people cannot be unique because their very uniqueness (the joining to a particular community) is something they share with everyone! (And if you share something with everyone, how "unique" is that?)
It seems to me that if a congregation exists, it lives and moves and has its being in the righteousness/faith/relationship (those three are all synonymous for me these days) from which it springs forth--namely, God's gracious promise to love everlasting--and the congregation shares that righteousness/faith/relationship with others to create communities of justice, peace, and hope. A Christian congregation then gives away the relationship that created it, and it dies to itself, to each other-- in a trust of a life in God that never ends.


Anonymous said...

I'm having a personal struggle--a crossroads, if you will, about churches as a whole.

Not about God, Christ, or faith itself, but about churches and administration of them.

It is odd for me after a lifetime of being active in a church to suddenly not be, and I feel turned upside-down at times--but the events that have taken place at a church really slammed home to me how some non-Christian viewers may have come to see and lump Christians into a hypocrytical group.

I'm feeling like a congregation of my own and having worship in daily life instead of in a building with a group.

Are we called to join as a group congregation in weekly worship? Are we called to tithe directly to a church? are we called to gather in groups for worship?

Or is it enough to live as a Christian outside a membership in a building? Is it enough to tithe to needs of others on my own where I will? To live what I perceive as my Christian values in my daily life--doing my best to treat others with love and respect and giving of myself?

Do 'people' just crave the unity of a social gathering to worship? Or is that God's law? "Where two or more are gathered in my name"?

Is it ok in God's eyes to be a congregation for Him by myself? Or am I still a part of the whole congregation through thought and theory?

Scott Frederickson said...

This struggle and crossroads seems to get at the heart of what I'm thinking here in this post. Most congregations don't do much for me anymore; and that's why I looked to see if Prairie Table could offer something different. Since I believe we are part of community, and I like what you said about "theory and thought," but I believe we are made to be in community too--the question seems to me to be very important. Whether we are called to this, I don't know, but physics and biology seem to tell us that God made us communal.(Admittedly the tithing thing seems to be a stretch.) I don't profess to have answers to your questions, but what I'd like to see is those questions forming the basis of what and who Prairie Table might be. Because it seems to me, that although your events are perhaps unique to you, many people share similar experiences, and their questions, oddities, struggles, and crossroads are then similar to yours as well. In this you are not alone, because there is one person I know--me--who is right there with you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your very honest opinions on this with me Scott.

I appreciate that.
Knowing that I am not wondering these things alone is helpful.

At this point I don't know that I can walk into the doors of a church building and comfortably sit down and worship, given some of the church events that have happened. Not sure if that is pure stubbornness and difficulty to forgive on my part, or if it is connected to a strong sense of values that make me pull back because I don't want to be part of a hypocracy and I refuse to pretend that the things that happened were right or acceptable. They weren't. Nor have they been righted.

There is absolutely no doubt in my heart and soul about God and Christ as my Savior.
I know this as sure as I breathe the air and drink the water.

Yes, I agree, we humans are social creatures. It seems to make sense to gather as a group congregation to praise God. And I do miss that. Yet I have a tough time turning a blind eye to some happenings in the church that don't appear to be godly at all. These things have made me question churches in general recently.

For me, the idea of being part of a congregation in thought and theory seems to fit in with how we live our daily lives--whether we live as Christians and walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Anonymous said...

We are solo beings, but are created in family- born of family both human and through baptism. Yes, families don't always agree on big things like politics or little things, such as who's turn to take out the trash. But, we are carried as life in a mother's womb, created by two being consumating the human...ness of our world. A congregation is a family of God. Not perfect by any means, but important none the less. Jesus, had a family of disciples. Not always headed in the same direction, but always gathering together in prayer, thanksgiving, communion and yes tithing (as mentioned many times in the bible) to live out our faith outside of our own selfishness.

I do believe we are called to weekly worship- not for our own purposes, but to gather together, collecting energy from the others to go and do the work in and of the world.

Anonymous, if you feel upside-down at times with events that have taken place in your church or community- look deeply at your own participation and separation from the body of Christ and what you take away from the world by not participating in it.

Anonymous said...

To one Anonymous from another....:)

I appreciate your input. I do. A huge part of me agrees.......that's why I feel upside down right now.

Let's say that things that happened in the church felt.....wrong. Not godly or biblical. Things that occurred do not follow Christ's teachings or how he lived.

Therein lies the dilemma.

This church no longer feels......right.

That makes me examine how other churches function as well.