Congregational Identity

There’s a really good book that came out of the Alban Institute in 2004. It’s called The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics. Israel Galindo is the author. Chapter 7 has to do with “The Hidden Life of Congregational Identity.” I want to give you a run-down of that chapter.

Galindo believes that a congregation’s identity is one of the most important dynamics in the corporate life of an assembly. He states that there are 3 major components of that identity: Spirituality, something he calls “Stance,” and Style.

Spirituality strongly influences things like how a congregation approaches worship – how the people understand the reason we gather. It also influences the rest of mission and ministry, including it’s “stance.” It may influence Style, too, but Stance is mainly what I want to address here today.

Galindo writes, “A church’s stance has to do with how it views its mission and ministry and how it relates to the world around it” (117). Geographical context may well play into a church’s stance: Is the setting urban? Suburban? Rural? That makes a difference. So does the composition of the congregation. Are the people primarily Latino? Black? White? Asian-Pacific? That’s also a determining factor.

Galindo states, though, that membership/participation usually determines a congregation’s viability (ability to sustain itself and it’s ministries) LESS than whether a congregation is involved in the life of the neighborhood where it’s planted. This is something that’s VERY worth considering!

“Doctrinal or mission task emphasis” can also determine a congregation’s stance. Galindo points out that a stance can and often does shift over time; however, “imprinting” by founding members (even, let’s hypothetically say, 105 year ago) sometimes so strongly shapes an assembly’s stance that the congregation has trouble adjusting when demographic shifts in the neighborhood take place. “For many congregations, it’s easier to pull up stakes and move to a different geographical location when the neighborhood changes than it is to change their stance” (118).

Incidentally – or not incidentally! – FELC has stayed put in this particular neighborhood for 60 years, demographic shifts notwithstanding. I don’t know whether that has to do with stubbornness, with determination, with the fact that there are numerous other congregations within a 15-mile radius that individual members/families can choose from instead of uprooting the current congregation … or whether it has more to do with a real sense that THIS congregation is ROOTED in THIS PLACE, planted here by God for a purpose. Another thing worth pondering …. You tell me. And if the latter is the case, then what do we have to do in order to make our ministries more viable in this place where God has put us?

Back to Galindo!

Galindo lists 9 common congregational stances (118 – 123). Let’s see whether any of these (or any combination of them) sounds like FELC. Here they are, along with brief descriptions:

1. The Urban Ministry-stance Congregation
* “This congregation’s stance is informed and shaped by its geographical location in the urban setting.”
* “Commitment to the welfare of the city” is a major value.
*As such they are active in community ministries: aftercare programs, ESL courses, tutoring/training ministries, AA, NA, single-parenting groups are hosted here. There may also be secular agencies stationed in these churches (clinics, counseling centers, etc.)
* These folks likely intentionally remained grounded in place rather than moving to the suburbs.
*People in this congregation “seek to impact the lives of those in their neighborhood, which is made up of a broad spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic groups.”
* The membership reflects the demographics of the neighborhood.
* It’s not uncommon to find congregations like this in large buildings that also house several separate (ethnic) churches (or schools) in the facility.

2. The University-stance Congregation
* Geographic context is in close proximity to a university or college.
* Membership includes a large number of people from that school (students, administrators, professors, etc.)
* Education and learning are strong values.
* Sermons (and overall approach to matters of faith) tend to be critical/scholarly.
* Book studies and lecture series make up much of the educational programming.
* This congregation has a good sized endowment but often struggles with finances beyond the bare essentials.
* The membership is well educated, but often transient; therefore, membership loyalty and program/ministry continuity is a challenge.

3. The Country Club-stance Congregation
* Members tend to be financially affluent.
* To outsiders, this congregation seems aloof, exclusive, disconnected from the real world.
* The exclusive nature of the membership creates intense closeness. (I added this aspect. It’s not in Galindo.)
* Members may resist direct ministry, but are generous financial supporters of various ministries.

4. The Community-stance Congregation
* Values inclusivity, belongingness, diversity, and tries to “welcome all”
* Tends to downplay denominational affiliations (because those can be obstacles for new people)
* Celebrates the wider culture insofar as it aligns with the congregation’s faith values
* Sermons include pop culture references, and congregation tends to “get it”
* Educational offerings tend to be “creative” (e.g. Bible studies along pop culture themes, such as “A Spirituality of The Matrix,” a “Survivor-themed” youth lock-in)
* Tends to provide a “cafeteria plan of ministry opportunities” – “everything from day care for toddlers to art classes for seniors” – which provide multiple entry points into congregational life.
* Outreach tends to echo the “If you build it, they will come” concept
* Drawbacks:
– Requires major investment in competent staff.
– Gets trapped in a consumerist mindset (“Market analysis” approach to outreach;                   attractional model for certain constituencies (e.g. parents with young children, young           thirty-somethings, etc.)) which creates pseudo-community of like-minded people                 instead of creating community “around building [an authentically] inclusive, multi-
generational faith community”

5. The Mission-stance Congregation
* Intentionally outward-focused.
* Values service to the world.
* Faithfulness as a church includes work “to transform the world through active engagement”
* Committed to the ministry of all believers.
– “As such it is effective in organizing, structuring, and providing processes that
facilitate its members’ quick and effective engagement in personal or corporate
ministries” beyond the four walls of the building.
* Values a theology of “call” (vocation) and service through ministry to others (discipleship)
* Has difficulty maintaining multigenerational membership
– is primarily an “adult” church
* Has difficulty maintaining programs to provide for more dependent members (older adults, children, youth)
– Sees faith formation of youth/children as primarily the responsibility of the family

6. The Pillar-stance Congregation
* Enjoys prestige (if not always influence, or if so, may no longer have much affluence)
* Enjoying a rich history and reputation, often caught in the bureaucracy stage.
* Leadership strongly supports denominational structures and orthodox theology (if not always orthodox practice)
* Places high value on professionalism of staff and pastor.

7. The Shepherd-stance Congregation
* Values affirmation of persons and care-giving
– sees self as “family of faith”
* Sermons tend to focus on reconciliation, healing, peace, justice.
* Members welcome the broken and hurt, offering comfort, healing & restoration
* Danger: potential addiction to pain (little room for healthy, mature members who need a challenge rather than affirmation)

8. The Outreach-stance Congregation
* “Outreach” tends to mean “evangelism” to the “lost”
* Highly values the conversion experience and some outward sign thereof
– As such, every practice of the congregation is geared toward that goal or toward reinforcing that value
* Every gathering is a chance to preach repentance (and to offer an altar call)
* Heavy stress on sin and the need to be rescued from it
* Social activism (if present) seen as “bearing fruit” and as outward manifestation of the indwelling of the Spirit

9. The Crusader-stance Church
* Holds a strong “Kingdom of God” theology
– As such, participates actively in the public square, engage in public debates, provides prophetic stance, ensures that the voice of God is heard
(Exists on both sides of the political and theological spectrum)

Take a look at all of these stances, what congregations who fall into these categories tend to value, what the pitfalls are (if they’re stated or if you can see them), and try to determine whether our congregation fits one stance more than another, or whether we might have more of an Old McDonald approach (here a value, there a value…). Armed with the insights you come away with, let’s determine what we want to DO with that info. How does this affect how we choose and negotiate our own values and the principles that guide us?

I hope you enjoy this discussion. I find it all very fascinating!

Keep on chooglin’,

Pr. Rob

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About Robaigh

I'm a recovering museum nerd who holds no authority regarding correct doctrine, biblical interpretation or anything like that, but who - with fear and trembling - is trying to work all that out.
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