A generation ago, observers noted that growing congregations were ones that gave clear (right and wrong) directions about life. These were homogenous gatherings. People essentially looked the same. Those gathered represented, shall we say, the same demographics.
Directions included moralistic edicts about the best and worst way to be, say, married, to manage finances, to raise children, to pray to God, and so forth. The rules were about life, yes, but the leaders of these growing congregations were clear. They were clear about what the Bible directs concerning the right way and the wrong way. Listeners agreed, for the most part, because they were from the same locus in life.
Exchange for moral direction was the not-so-veiled expectation that participants would raise their hands to support running the congregation. We need teachers, please sign up. Please serve on the building and grounds committee, we need you this year.
Now, a generation later we can do better.
Why not a community that gives more attention to your one and only life, and exploration of the world, than the needs of the institution? Why settle for being a volunteer when you could be where the action unfolds, where life sails to adventures unknown.
God’s dream is not congregational growth but the development of human beings.
Congregational life doesn’t have to be transactional. It can be transformative.
Rabbi Edwin Friedman said, “If you are going to preach, for heaven’s sake, make it about life.”
Why shouldn’t your congregation’s purpose provide trail markers of meaning, helping you navigate the ever-increasing demands of life?
Participation isn’t about right and wrong. Your participation in a congregation isn’t, without equivocation, accepting a particular ancient dogma. Instead, participation is about meaning-making today — now — not centuries ago.
Certainly, your congregation needs to pay attention to its organizational life. You need people attending to budgets, the condition of the facility, the Facebook page, the agenda for the board meeting, the proper equipment for live-streaming, and so forth.
Yet, if attention to operations subtracts from supporting your life (and the lives of people in the community and, indeed, the world), then you will feel (and it is a feeling) that participation lacks adventure.
This isn’t just about what is good for your soul.
Scientists identify a segment of the brain that encourages adventure. This segment is located in a primal area. This primal area comes alive when you experience adventure, the unknown, the precarious. This neuro-theological discovery demonstrates our propensity for sampling the unknown. God is found in the yet-to-be-experienced, the yet-to-be-explained.
When living life well (soul and brain) is not primary, your congregation becomes a membership organization in which the primary purpose is to recruit volunteers to sustain the organization (think recruitment of the finance committee). Those with a strong sense of obligation will stay engaged. Others will drift away and find adventure elsewhere.
Vigorous congregations direct attention to the brilliant multiplicity of life. Best practices don’t exist. Life is too complex and contextual. You might find yourself praying in idiosyncratic ways. You are free to ask essential questions (What does systemic racism look like?). Your congregation serves as a resource about any number of crucial matters: anti-racism, parenting, finances, justice, vocation, character-building, living with ambiguity, and for sure, how these matters shape your connection to the Divine.
No wonder an increasing number of congregations find that they don’t need a building. They don’t need volunteers. They go without a strategic plan. They meet at dinner tables, or near a garden, or in a neighbor’s basement.
During COVID-19, one pastor says, “We scraped the plans for a family life center. Instead, we will help people be, broaden their families. Nope, no building needed to do this. Let’s honor God by taking the walls down, rather than paying for more construction.”
What’s the risk if your congregation testifies about enigmatic epiphanies? The need for buildings, budgets, clean carpet, and new attendance sheets become secondary at best.
You feel (yes, it is a feeling) congregational life is more like summer camp, an anti-racism rally, or a spiritual retreat — than an institution.
It’s about life. It’s not about the congregation as an end unto itself.
What matters most in your life?
Ask (beg, borrow, and steal) your congregation to participate in your growth about such matters. It isn’t about the right or wrong way to live. Why draw such a boundary?
Instead, congregational participation is about your life, and the lives of others, with whom you share the world. All of it is messy, ambiguous, mysterious, and ultimately how developmental (rather than moralistic) character growth emerges.
Such a sense of belonging, learning, and growth is rare (particularly for adults). Yet, consider how your religious community can, and must, make room for meaning-making opportunities.
I feel (yes, a feeling) closer to the Divine Mystery at summer camp than I have at a congregational board meeting. I’ve experienced the Great Beyond in the holy space between and among others, not passively listening to a preacher who instructs one right way to live as a trade-off for serving as an institutional volunteer. It is like the Divine Mystery has escaped the building and is free-flying through the air.
As Frederick Buechner wrote a generation ago (has it been that long?),
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
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