Why do congregations matter?

We need each other to be prepared to experience Christ and participate in the coming of the kingdom of God.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, a congregation’s health was measured by growth in attendance and loyalty to the denomination. Congregations were seen as one part in the denominational machine. Denominations conceived the vision and mission and planned programs that the congregations implemented.

Loren Mead founded the Alban Institute in 1974 because he saw something that denominations were missing: Congregations were crucial organizations to the formation of Christians and the witness of the Church yet they had almost no resources to help improve their vitality and no forums for pastors or lay leaders to discuss their challenges. Mead and others started by offering consultants to assist at critical moments. They published what they learned is small books and began to teach continuing education seminars.

Forty years later, it might seem odd to argue that congregations matter because the most famous Christian institutions in the United States are congregations: Saddleback, The Potter’s House, Lakewood and Willow Creek, to name a few. Congregational leaders flock to conferences, watch worship on YouTube and buy books to learn from these exemplary mega-churches. The denominational pyramid has inverted. Now the congregation is the focus of most denominations’ attention to the point that the congregation is often seen as the denomination’s client.

Where I see congregations struggling for relevance is as institutions in their local communities. Local governments, health care providers and social service agencies have an instrumental view of congregations. If these agencies look to congregations at all, it is to supply things like meals at Thanksgiving or toys for Christmas. Few congregations have a vision to influence policy. Most are more concerned about the number of people attending than the impact of their witness in the community.

A couple of years ago, I was working with a ministry with young people on parole in Harris County, Texas. A probation officer told me she had spent 25 years watching church people visit the young people in jail and shun those same young people when they were on the streets. She was intrigued by our ministry’s offer to befriend the young people while they were still in jail and continue the relationship when they were back in the neighborhood. The ministry’s vision was to create community that included church members and young people. She did not believe we would do it.

Equally troubling is that young people raised in church often don’t see their involvement in a congregation as a way to make a difference. They volunteer to teach in schools, work with the poor through an NGO or start a business that does social good, but many in the younger generations don’t see the relevance of congregations. Even those who go to seminary often have to be persuaded by professors that working in a congregation is the best opportunity to serve God.

Through the generations, congregations have been the kitchens where Christians are “cooked” into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbor.

Christine Pohl’s “Living in Community” features four practices that are critical to the life of community: embracing gratitude; making and keeping promises; living truthfully; and practicing hospitality. Life in congregations both requires and molds us into these practices.

Because we have fallen into the pattern of understanding congregations as self-supporting organizations with a staff of ministers and support personnel, a building, parking lot and grounds, we spend a lot of time worrying about budgets, depreciation, nursery volunteers and all the rest. This self-supporting, 501(c)3 form of congregation is under stress.

The really small ones can do their “kitchen work” without a full-time pastor, but they are not regarded as a real church unless they sacrifice everything else to pay that salary. The big ones are able to do the work because they have the scale to take care of all the administrative problems and provide lots of places for people to serve inside and outside the organization. The middle-sized ones are having the most trouble at the moment.

This focus on the maintenance of staff and buildings can obscure the basic work of congregations.

Faith & Leadership recently featured a story about Diallo and Jameel Smith, who have started a congregation in Detroit called Awakenings Movement and a pingpong parlor called Drive. These are separate organizations, but both are an outgrowth of a calling to create spaces where community is nurtured. By separating the economic worries from the life of the community, Awakenings Movement can focus on the work of being a community in which God forms the participants into God’s own people.

Recently a lawyer insisted that I define “congregation” for a contract; I boiled it down to “a group of people who gather to engage in religious activities.” The definition satisfied the lawyer, but was missing the purpose of the gathering. As we see in the stories about Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion, we need each other to be prepared to experience Christ and participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. That is why congregations matter.