Layers of Community and the Institutional Church
I’m a pastor. Full-time. In a church. That makes me more and more rare these days. If you haven’t caught the news the institutional church is under growing great change (often called decline but I won’t claim that because I don’t believe it… its change that may look like decline and maybe this post will say something as to why).
So… as a pastor of a particular church I have a congregation that I serve. People ask, how big is your church? I pause. First? Its not my church. But it is MY church in so far as I am one particular member of this thing that was here before me and will be here after me. Yes I actually believe it will be thriving in the years to come – I just don’t know what that will look like.
But back to the question. I pause really because… well. Which congregation do you mean? There are many ways to measure these things, and we are seeking new ways to measure because… well…. We like data. It makes us feel effective. I see some value to such things but only some, but that’s not what this post is about either. My point is this: we have all known for a long time that communities have stated and unstated leaders. There are people in leadership positions that are named and claimed, and then those whose word and opinion matter to the entire community even though it doesn’t come from a named position or authority. Well I name that because I have noticed the same is true of our congregation and the communities in which I think of myself as some form of leader or pastor.
Bear with me for a moment as I count my congregations stated, and unstated, that I pastor in.
In my congregation there are about 100 some people who are primary community. These folks are in worship probably 40-50 times a year, they are in bible studies, fellowship programs, mission projects. I connect with these folks several times a week, every week. For the most part they feel like my immediate family. Each one.
Then there is the next layer of our congregation. The average worship attender. Probably about another 100 or so people who are in worship at least once a month, people I know by sight, and mostly folk who I have had lunch with or connected with on the phone or by note at some point. People who I think of often if they are missing and feel pretty well connected with, but they are not necessarily part of my “everyday life” and I think of them as our extended family.
Then there is a more amorphous group. The 200+ people who will come to worship a couple times a year. It’s a group that is easy to dismiss but who I have recently been reminded are more connected than I think of them as being. Two of the most recent examples of this was one person who sent in a note to the church asking that we make sure to keep them on the roles. They said they would not be making to church but they love to follow everything electronically and hope that when life shifts they will be here again. You know what? That works for me. It reminds me why it’s important that I film 90 second sermon teasers, and write newsletters and letters informing people of changes going on here at church. It makes maintaining a facebook page and a webpage and youtube channel and a blog worthwhile because each of them connects differently with different folk. The second note was more personal and came in through that same already named blog. It reminded me that you can pastor folk you don’t even know. There are people with whom I have significant interaction who I have never, or rarely met, who are not members of my church nor do I expect they ever will be. But we have significant interactions not unlike pastor to congregant. And it matters… to both of us.
So if you are counting that is like 3 congregations. I know. All of them have the same name over the door. But I think they all have to be engaged and reached differently and they all engage and reach us differently. For all intents and purposes they must be treated like different congregations. And I didn’t even mention the shut-ins and homebound folk yet. Make that 4 congregations.
And then there are the walk-ins. I have friends who say they have no need of an office at the church. That speaks to varying contexts because that really isn’t true for me at all. I could, if I was so inclined, do nothing other than deal with walk-in visits. From members to regular attendees of 12 step groups and the preschool, from homeless people to the random passersby. One time I almost ended up doing a drop-in wedding of a couple I had never met… but that’s another story. People see our church building and they know they can have an ear to hear them. And that’s a powerful ministry to offer… its quite possibly the most amorphous community of them all but there are days I think it’s the most important one as well.
I also, through my church work, came to be involved in a non-profit that helps end homelessness through Housing First solutions. I came to be on the board of that group, and then the President of the Board. I spend a countable (not significant but not insignificant) amount of time on that work in its ebbs and flows. And I love it. I love that it has taught me much about the church and vice versa. I love that it taps me into yet another community of hard-working, gospel-living (though they wouldn’t claim that with those words) people transforming the world for the better. And I get to sit alongside them and soak up their wisdom and their stories and be inspired. I’m a member of the congregation (not its leader) and proud of it. But I do think of it as one more community I pastor. And as with many of them, they don’t pay me to do so. In fact its because that first community pays me and gives me liberty to do the work I’m called to do even when they aren’t the only ones I attend to that I’m able to do so many of these other things. I’m pastoring many communities… but it is ALL one job. (or one vocation.. one calling… you pick the word you are most comfortable with).
I’ve lost track of how many community layers that is… but I want to talk about 1 and half more communities if you are still with me. Advocacy. My church is located one block from the Idaho State Capitol. I never knew what this would mean to me when I took this call. It has come to mean rallys and hearings and meetings with legislators. Just today it mean praying at memorial service at the Idaho Supreme Court. It is finding a public voice for my ministry that I never in a thousand years would have expected of myself. I count a whole group of new friends and colleagues from that work as well. People I otherwise would never have met and would otherwise never have known of me. Good friends; good ministry. What a gift to be able to be pastor in this world! And that… leads me to the last one and the actual event that made me think of this post.
I was waiting to pick up my daughter at school. A parent who I had met once before turns to me and tells me that he had seen me in the paper. It got us into having a good conversation about faith and politics… and wow! We are having taboo conversations while waiting for our kindergarteners to come out of school????? How awesome is that? In fact I had that similar conversation in about four random places all as a result of being on the news or in the paper doing advocacy work as a faith leader in our community. The point? It isn’t to get yourself on the news. It is that all of these communities can open doors to yet more communities… doors we have to be prepared to walk through and engage.
I am the pastor of a particular church. But that work? That work opens up an entire world full of congregations. That work enables me to actually feel like an apostle… speaking truth to power, connecting the lost to communal help, and walking alongside those finding ways to quench a spiritual thirst as soon as someone will give them a language to help articulate both their questions and answers.
What a gift.
This is why I don’t talk about decline. This is why I don’t talk about the death of the institutional church. This is why I don’t even have a problem with attractional models of church (though we certainly cannot let those be the end all and be all of the Kingdom)… because all of these have the potential to be doorways to so many other communities.
It’s also why agility is my word of the decade. There are many leaders being trained to do one thing. And I bet they will do that one thing with excellence. But for folk like me? I hope we are trained to do many things poorly… because its not about how well we do them. Its that we are willing to walk where the spirit leads. We are willing to have feet in so many different places even when we have no idea what we are doing there. We do not live in an Either / Or world. Well, we need not live in such. We can live in a both / and world… a world of improv and the great “Yes, and…”
So I say yes to my attractional institutional 1953 church… yes, and. And so many other “churches” over layered with that church, and because of that church.
So the next time you ask me about my congregation? You will need to be prepared to tell me just which of them you mean. 😉