The church and the congregation are not the same thing. The congregation is part of the church, but the church... the Kingdom of God... the bride of Christ... is SO much bigger than the congregation - or the denomination. I knew that, but the way that we talked about the specific role of the congregation last week (public worship, teach core doctrine, care for congregation, institutional player) I realized both how limited that role is and also how important.
To be honest, as I look at my gifts for ministry - I am gifted to be a leader and a pastor within the congregation. I love worship and I want that worship to be available to all. I strive to be an institutional player in my community and build connections between my institutions and our schools and our city government and our state agencies. I'm a good ambassador in that sense. I'm a good representative. I have the gifts to care for people in my congregation - I did it this afternoon as I sat with a family around their dying father. I love to teach and I have the gifts and abilities to take complex ideas and help people understand them.
I also deeply feel called to be a part of small communities of people who are trying to live the gospel with each other. And I think in part what I realized this weekend is that I may not be called to be a leader of a group like that, but I am called to join one. I'm called to help create space for them to happen. I'm called to equip others to lead them.
As an institution, our congregation can be a hub for missional activity. I love that imagery. and I want to make THAT happen.
As a part of the conference experience, we were at Lockerbie Central UMC/Earth House. This is a church that has converted its basement into a vegan restaurant, its middle floor into office space and a coffee shop, and it's top floor/sanctuary into a blank worship space and flexible auditorium/stage/performance space. I am in LOVE with the whole thing. I love the beautiful old stained glass windows and the homemade chai lattes and the organic fair trade coffee and the gorgeous hardwood floors and the fact that so many different types of people are trying to figure out their lives and their faith in that space. I love the fact that yoga classes and cooking classes and films about social justice issues and conversations about salvation are happening in the same space. I love that people enter that community (enter THE CHURCH) through all sorts of different venues.
I stayed with a young woman who come to the community in part because of a yoga class. And she worships there sometimes. She helps non-profits across the state find the resources they need personnel wise to be effective. And she's finding community and hope and inspiration there at the Earth House Collective AND the Lockerbie Central congregation.
Our hosts coordinated homestays for many of us, and that in itself was a blessing. I got to know December, even if just for one evening of really deep and vulnerable conversation over a cup of tea. It was amazing to experience that and to know that there was someone, a stranger, who had a similiar story to me. It was a reminder of how small the world is and also a reminder of how powerful the gift of hospitality can be.
I'm really struck by the difference between the inclusiveness of what the public congregation should be and the exclusiveness of a committed group of disciples who are trying to live the gospels. I'm not sure if this quite came into focus for me completely until this morning as a sat around a table with pastors from other traditions. I had said something about our open communion table and realized how sharply that contrasted with my LCMS colleagues. Ironically, I was at the same time arguing for committed exclusive discipleship groups. We were having a discussion about the limits of God's kingdom, and I realized the beauty of the Methodist/Congregational structure. We can HAVE the absolute openness of the Kingdom in the congregation, in the sacraments, in worship, in teaching... everyone is welcome. And then we can invite those who want to take deeper steps into discipleship groups. The problem with a lot of churches with rigorous discipline is that it creates and us vs. them mentality, you are in or you are out. If we instead have a partnership that lets us know all who believe are in, and then invite everyone to go deeper, we get around some of that exclusivity.
What I am trying to figure out is how to translate that back into my institutional congregation. I believe we have the structure within our language already. We have baptized members and professing members - and TECHNICALLY professing members should be people committed to living out their baptismal vows through specific practices. And if someone decides they aren't ready to commit to those practices, they can still be baptized members of our church! Really, what that takes is for us to take our vows seriously and to seriously hold one another accountable AND to value baptized membership in a new way. To realize there is a difference between those who follow Jesus and those who are disciples. Ideally, everyone would be a disciple. But not everyones ready. Not everyone's ready to take that risk - but they still believe.