For many years, my family and I lived across the street from a Friends meetinghouse. It was home to a local congregation of Quakers with whom we did not worship, serve or fellowship with in any sort of formal way. Instead, we were members of another Friends church a couple of miles away.
Every once in a while, I felt a tinge of guilt about the fact that we were not participating in the life of the community right next door. After all, their witness and ministry were focused right in our neighborhood. We knew and respected those people. The Friends from the church loved my wife and children and if having them join the meeting meant I had to come along too, I think they would still have chosen to take us in. As it turned out, every time I seriously proposed switching congregations, my wife would lovingly remind me, “We can’t do that, sweetheart. You are the pastor of the other church.”
It may be that my memory of that conversation is clouded by too many old minister jokes swimming around in my brain. The truth remains, I really did and often do think about what it means to be deeply connected and invested in the life of a local meeting/church and I labor around the kind of priority commitments and choices that ought to come with these relationships.
Being part of a “congregation,” of course, is so much more than individuals agreeing to congregate on a regular basis for some sort of religious purpose. If that were the full extent of being a faith community, I suspect most of us would ultimately find it unsatisfying and deeply disappointing.
Most of us hunger for something more transformational and compelling than a series of religious events. We want an authentic spiritual connection with God, one that is shared with and enriched by other people. I hear many longing to be part of a community that supports and nourishes their ideals, that provides resources and opportunities to act on their most cherished spiritual convictions and concerns. They want a community that will walk with them through good times and bad and where there is a willingness to know and be known by others. Many folks I know hunger to be integrally
involved in a fellowship focused on the work Christ has called them to do in the world and where radical union with Jesus’ life, teachings and Living Spirit is nurtured.
Vital congregations do not happen by themselves. They are, of course, a gift of grace as God’s Presence works within and through the people. But these kinds of communities are equal parts human effort, intentionally created, patiently built and lovingly maintained. If they are going to satisfy some of the longing we want and need for ourselves and others, it is likely to require a change in the way we invest in these relationships.
At this point in my life having relocated away from my home church and doing work that requires constant travel, I feel a profound and intense need to reestablish a sense of vital community. I need more than a space and place to congregate with other individuals, however. I hunger to be part of a community where all of us are being formed and shaped into a living, breathing organism, knit together by the Spirit of Christ, learning to move together and share with one another in a way that reveals God’s glory and continues God’s work in the world.
So . . . I guess I will do what I have done in the past and encourage others who may be like me to try something similar: Show up regularly at those gatherings where people congregate. Offer to serve. Initiate deeper connections by opening your home, your hand and your heart to others. Be patient and pray. Be grateful for the gathering and encourage each and every sign of the group as it forms. And finally, if you have a spouse or children others will love, bring them along — it might make it more likely you will be allowed to stay.