Crazy little thing called Church

Blue cross on black background

A few years ago I joined The Alban Institute, an organisation that describes itself as

an ecumenical, interfaith organization founded in 1974, which supports congregations through book publishing, educational seminars, consulting services, and research

and on the whole they are a very good organisation that offers a lot of thoughtful research and thinking about all aspects of Church: leadership, size transition, models of church, worship, salaries, community, and a whole lot more.

It was Alban that was key in helping the Scottish Episcopal Church put together the Mission 21 programme, which I always described as a bit like “psychotherapy for congregations”, in that it allowed local communities of believers to exam what they did, why and invite them to consider different patterns of behaviour to encourage growth. Mission 21 was a good thing, in my opinion, and to be honest I’m a little surprised why it hasn’t got the same high profile as it did five years ago. I drew this cartoon for the church’s Inspires magazine a few months ago, which seemingly upset a few people:

Cartoon showing a man reading an A-Z of Scotland saying That is weird, I can see the M8 and M9 but where is M21?

I didn’t mean to upset anyone. It was simply highlighting that this, at times, very effective tool seemed to have dropped off the average church member’s radar. We don’t seem to hear about it very often, and that’s a shame.

Cover of Congregations magazine
Anyway, back to Alban. As a member I’m entitled to discounts from their excellent bookstore, and any conferences that they run. But since most of those seem to be held in the US, I’ve not been to any of those yet. I also get their quarterly magazine, called Congregations.

The magazine is excellent, packed with very thoughtful and thought-provoking articles usually based around a theme or topic. (It’s a bit like a prog rock concept album but in a magazine format!) This month’s grand-arching theme is “Congregations and the Future” and this article I have found very encouraging.

The article is entitled “This Thing Called Church” and in it “Pastor and author Anthony B. Robinson argues that a renewed focus on theology has the power to retore vitality to today’s congregations.” And I think they are onto something.

It appears to me that many of us in the Church have forgotten — or got confused — to some degree what Church is about, and if we’re not entirely sure then no wonder those outside the Church don’t know either. In some places, it seems, Church has become little more than a club for like-minded religious people, or an arena for religious-themed entertainment, or else a community gathered around a charismatic leader. But Church is more than that.

The very word ecclesiology provides clues to its importance in understanding what it truly means to be a church or congregation. It comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “a people called” and “the visible assembly.” Church is not the building in which people meet, nor is it the leader. It is people gathered into community in response to God’s call in Jesus Christ. Church happens, as Jesus said, where “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20).

Churches, like other organizations, develop their structures, systems, and rituals for governance and continuity. These can be quite important, for they sustain common life and work, but such structures are in the end provisional. In Paul’s words, they are “clay jars,” not to be confused with the “extraordinary power [that] belongs to God” (2 Cor. 4:7). The church belongs to and owes its existence to God and not to us. God has created and claimed the church for God’s purposes.
(This Thing Called Church, in Alban Congregations (Winter 2005)

Recently our ministry team preached a series of sermons entitled “A Church to which I would like to belong”. It made us think about what we regard as essential for Church to be Church. What is the Church? What are we here for? What is our purpose?

Congregations and clergy seemingly have often misconstrued or misunderstood the closing scene in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain and charges them with the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Somehow it seems we have heard Jesus say, “Go therefore, and make members . . .” That is not quite the same thing. Frankly, making disciples seems to me both more interesting and more valuable . . .

A culture of membership, partly shaped by the ethos of consumerism, turns the church into a provider of goods and services dubbed religious or spiritual. Moreover, it is “our church” or “my church,” not “God’s church”.
(This Thing Called Church, in Alban Congregations (Winter 2005)

A call to make disciples not members is something that excites me, and is something that requires us, like Jesus, to get ‘out there’ and start sharing the good news of Jesus (which is what the word “Gospel” means).

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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