My Take: In Praise of Congregations:
by Raj Attiken, August 15, 2015: For most Adventists, the face of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the local congregation. The Adventism lived and modeled in their local church is the Adventism they know. Their involvement and engagement with the Adventist Church happens primarily at their local church and its ministries. While they may be aware of, and even involved in, the larger denominational entity and its ministries, their primary and dominant point of engagement is with their local church. The flourishing of local congregations, therefore, should be a matter of interest to Adventists. Healthy, Christ-centered, vibrant congregations have immense potential to have long-term impact on the lives of people in and outside the church.
In the current climate in which denominational actions, pronouncements, programs, and personnel have seized the attention and emotions of Adventists, it seems that the local congregation is invisible or nonexistent. Its presence and contribution seem completely eclipsed by the din and tumult of denominational concerns. In this context, it is important to be reminded that the local congregation is the life-blood of the denomination, and that its contribution cannot be replicated anywhere else. Also, that there is nothing about the denomination that can and should keep a local congregation from pursuing its vision and fulfilling its mission. Nothing! If denominational leaders employ fear and guilt to garner support or compliance, the congregation can refuse to be captive to that fear; it can instead celebrate its hope and assurance in Christ. If denominational leaders issue unreasonable edicts, the congregation can opt for reason and conscience. If denominational leaders advocate for injustice and inequality, the local congregation can be an exemplar of justice, equality and fairness. The local church – the worshiping, nurturing, ministering community – is the church. Everything else is para-church. If there are no congregations, there can be no denomination.
Congregations play a vital role in bringing people to faith, nurturing them in the faith, and equipping them to live their faith. They help guide the faith-formation of our young. They hold space for youthful questioning and adult exploration. They provide opportunity for us to be periodically reminded of the humility that must characterize Christian living, and hold a spot for us at the Lord’s Table. They help keep hope alive. They welcome into the family those who enter the waters of baptism. They make sacrifices to educate our children. They bless the marriage of our sons and daughters. They provide comfort when grief strikes. They accompany us through life’s ups and downs. By their stable, permanent presence, investment, and engagement in the community, they “earn the right to be heard” – the right to tell the story of Jesus in compelling ways. Their presence is a reminder to society that faith, God, and the sacred are enduring realities.
Congregations are not mere social groupings. They are communities inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God. The Spirit is present when they gather. The Spirit equips its members with all the spiritual gifts they need to make their congregation a healthy, wholesome community. Congregational leaders have the freedom to discover and discern what the Spirit wishes to make of their congregation. They can lay Spirit-led plans. They can set Spirit-led goals. They can employ Spirit-led methods to fulfill the mission for which God has raised up their particular church in their particular place.
Research on congregational life has identified the complex dynamics that are at play in congregations of all sizes. The late Lyle Schaller, who was called the dean of church consultants, taught and wrote extensively about congregations. In my early years as a pastor of small churches, I was attracted to his typology of churches based on size. Small churches are cats — they have “nine lives,” he cautioned us! Denominations try to merge them, yoke them, close them, or ignore them – but they survive. Trying to direct and manage a small church is like trying to take a cat for a walk!
Schaller’s descriptive typology of church size included the collie, the garden, the house, the mansion, and the ranch, each with its distinctive dynamics, idiosyncrasies, leadership and pastoral needs. Schaller also outlined how denominational staff can best relate to, and serve, congregations of various sizes. In recent decades other church consultants have developed further useful approaches to the study of congregations and how best to nurture their health and vitality.
Mega-church pastor, Bill Hybels, who is known for his passion for the local church, wrote: “There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited. It comforts the grieving and heals the broken in the context of community. It builds bridges to seekers and offers truth to the confused. It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. It breaks the chains of addictions, frees the oppressed, and offers belonging to the marginalized of this world. Whatever capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness. . . .No other organization on earth is like the church. Nothing even comes close.”1
The operative phrase in Hybels’ description of the local church is “. . .when it’s working right.” Pastors, lay leaders, and members generally work hard to get their local church “working right.” Their efforts should be recognized, affirmed, and supported. Denominational programs, campaigns, and extravaganzas come and go, but the local church remains as a steady and faithful witness to the enduring power of faith, hope, and love. The local church deserves our care. That’s my take!
1 Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), p. 23.