CONGREGATIONAL FORMATION IN CONTENTIOUS TIMES
We live in difficult times.
Our country is divided over some tough issues: the presidency, Ferguson, sexual orientation, abortion, racism, immigration, poverty, healthcare, violence, gun control, and the list goes on. There was a time in American Evangelicalism when these issues were often discussed outside the church but never within its walls. They were seen as secular matters and not topics for discussion in the church. Not anymore.
As followers of Jesus we cannot ignore these issues. They impact our lives, and our churches, and our world. Though it might be difficult, we seek to discern what the Christ-like responses might be. How do we think, act, respond? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the difficult days of Hitler’s rise in Germany, asked: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
American pastors are called to ask the same question and help congregations wrestle with these issues. What does Jesus have to say today? How do we respond? The pastoral task is helping people know Christ, and know themselves, so they might think and live as his people.
This is the call to discipleship. The work happens in the concrete, in the messy, even in the contentious. Discipleship is not easy. Our work of shaping people into the image of Christ in real time and in real life (Galatians 4:19) must be both solidly theological and deeply practical.
But the question remains, how? How might we be gracious and generous and humble and convicted? Here are some guidelines I am developing to help congregations work through tough issues together.
1. A congregation must not be afraid to talk.
Civility in dialogue is a skill we develop and learn. We need to practice having discerning conversations with each other. We need sometimes to pause and ask each other: how is this going? To be sure, we will make mistakes along the way, but this well worth the effort.
• We begin by praying together. We need the Spirit’s wisdom as we engage in civil and respectful dialogue.
• We learn how to listen well. Be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). To listen well, we must learn to slow down, to hear, and to try and understand the other as much as we ourselves want to be understood.
• We speak and act with love. Our speech should be respectful, gentle, and kind.
• Pastors and congregational leaders model civility and courtesy. How we preach, and the words we use in conversations, in board meetings, in congregational meetings, even in the parking lot (!) set an example of civility in the church.
• We become more self-aware. Why do we think and react the way we do? What in our lives has shaped our thinking and our feelings? Are there biases or beliefs we hold to be true but are actually contrary to the ways of Jesus?
• We converse from a stance of convicted humility. Of course, we have our viewpoints and opinions, but we hold them lightly in order to hear and learn from others, and possibly grow and change.
2. A congregation approaches all issues as the Body of Christ.
Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding your selves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all, in all, and living through all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Before anything else, a congregation is a family – we cannot forget that we are one in Christ and that dividing walls have been torn down in Christ (Ephesians 2:14). As Christ emptied himself for us, so we live out a cross-shaped life before our sisters and our brothers (Philippians 2:7). All of our conversations, even debates, are built upon our unity and cruciformity in Christ.
• Our primary identity is found in our baptism in Christ.
• We gather together in worship around the Word. We are the people of God, brothers and sisters.
• We are committed to meeting at the Lord’s Table as one body binding ourselves to each other through the cross of Christ. Even – and perhaps especially – in the midst of division, we can choose to maintain unity in Christ!
• We are committed to serve each other and be a witness in the world. We are committed to treating each other well. The world will know that we are followers of Jesus by our love for one another. (John 13).
3. A congregation gathers around Scripture together.
The simple question is: Where is it written? What does Scripture say to us about this? We recognize that the answers to contentious issues are not easy, but we begin here. We humbly gather around the Word. We seek to hear what the Lord has to say. That is more important that our opinions or our convictions. We slow down so that we might hear from the Lord through the Word and each other.
• Our posture can be one of facing each other in a circle, Bible in hand.
• We foster a sense of curiosity. We are on a journey together to discern how the Lord wants us to live out our life of discipleship. Our focus is not on static, rigid propositions. Rather, getting out of our boxes of preconceived notions, we see our work as interactive and transformative. We are learning together, learning from each other.
‣ Are our cultural views sometimes being mistaken for biblical ones?
‣ How the church has dealt with this issue in the past? How are other voices wrestling with this topic? What are they learning? What can they teach us?
‣ We consider our own context: our denomination, our church family, the stories of our friends and neighbors, our city.
• The pulpit is a place of proclamation, but usually that communication is in one direction, from preacher to hearer. Preachers must also be aware of the sensitive nature of some topics and the impact that their public words might have on those listening. Congregational leaders must commit to create open and safe environments for conversation and discussion.
4. Pastors lead, nurture, and guard the congregation in the process of formation.
A burden is placed on ministry leaders in this forming task. Ray S. Anderson notes: “Whether we realize it or not, every act of ministry reveals something of God. By act of ministry I mean a sermon preached, a lesson taught, a marriage performed, counsel offered, any other word or act that people might construe as carrying God’s blessing, warning, or judgment” (The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People, p. 7). Rightly or wrongly, as we do our work, people see this as revealing something about God. It is a sobering responsibility. Will Willimon says: “My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus” (Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, p. ix).
• Pastors engage with their people so that the Word is heard and people follow Jesus. Paul writes “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).
• Pastors work to ensure that everyone is heard creating environments where people feel safe to express their beliefs, their questions, their fears.
• Pastors guard people in their congregation against disrespect, unkind and toxic words, and dangerous and false thinking (Acts 20)
The work is not easy – it requires prayer, imagination, patience, and courage. But the demands of the gospel and the circumstances of our world require that we engage in congregational formation so that we might live and act and be like Jesus.
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.