(A Paper Presented to Clergy at the 2011 General Church Assembly/ Conference)
New Church theology speaks of the fact that “Divine love constantly aims to forge a partnership with us.” The relationship God seeks is “a mutual partnership brought about by cooperation not action and reaction.” (TCR 371) How can we, in our limited human ways, try to more effectively cooperate with God’s desire for partnership as we seek to build a church? How do we make the partnership “mutual and reciprocal?” If community is “heaven in a lesser form”, how do create community? (HH 52)
These are critical questions. Christianity, in the form of institutional religion, faces many challenges. We are not unique in that regard. Older models of “church” appear to be fading quickly as congregations age and shrink. The average age for example of a Presbyterian Church goer in the United States is 60. The same is true in many of our New Church congregations. Newer models are emerging but remain somewhat undefined and unproven. Through the process of change, remaining mindful that ‘empting out’ occurs before a ‘filling up’ appears to be of note.
How then are we to navigate these changing waters? Arguably we, as in clergy, cannot. We can think long and hard. We can develop papers and positions. And yet the future appears to be best served by developing partnership models that pull clergy and laity into an increasingly close, cooperative model based on the partnership model God seeks to establish with each of us and with His church. Restated, if God desires mutual and reciprocal partnership we need to practice mutual and reciprocal partnership not just with God but with others. As is noted, we must govern our world as God governs His. Leadership and partnership then join.
Such a form of leadership entails gaining clarity on the non-negotiables and then allowing new forms to evolve out of those “knowns.” This occurs in the same way that knowing musical scales or a mathematical equation allows for further growth and creativity. Through this all the greatest of knowns is love. What moves us towards being more loving, moves us closer to God. “To the extent the truth becomes the leader, good becomes obscured; but to the extent good becomes the leader, truth is visible in its own light.” (AC 2407)
Many lines of new Church theological thought support a partnership model, i.e. “Nunc Licet”, “freedom according to reason” etc…. The role of the clergy then shifts from being resident expert, all knowing seer with answers, to a living partner with the laity. I believe the Catholic model of God > Clergy > Parishioner does not serve. The New Church model of God > People is what does serve. The special intuition/ perception given to clergy as a function of the clergy’s use is not denigrated in this model. Arguably it is it even more needed as a way to navigate the difficult, changing waters with grace.
How then, specifically, do we create a church where we live into this partnership model?
Sermon Writing Team
Sermon construction is one core of church life. The Sunday service and other related services still remain the primary focus of church life. The focus for many younger adults is clearly shifting away from church attendance as being the key marker of spirituality, however a solid Sunday program that informs and inspires remains central to church life. Therefore it needs to be fashioned around a partnership model.
People do form communities that we know partner with communities in heaven in ways unseen and unknown. The Pastor is not the conduit. The Pastor is just part of the community. These connections are with “all the varieties of what is good.” (TCR 15) So bringing a community together to create the Sunday message appears highly appropriate given the need to draw on these “varieties,” an orientation found in many memorable relationships that speak of gathers of individuals for the purpose of conversation and learning.
A strong, connected teaching of the New Church is that we all possess our own individual spiritual lives. We, like the disciples, all speak “in unique voices.” (TCR 146) Our unique spiritual lives then are not dependent on man-made organizations, formal church structures etc… which attempt to have all sing in one note versus all sing in harmony. And yet there is a continual, and I believe misguided default to seeing the minister as the only one with a grasp of the spiritual – as the one who knows THE note. As one former bishop noted, a great disappointment he faced often was being a “conversation stopper” in which others looked to him for THE answer.
Yet every week we are actually preaching to a room or auditorium filled with experts. It is not like a doctor addressing sick patients. It is like a doctor addressing other doctors. “Come let us reason together.” They may be doctors in search of more knowledge, in search of care, in search of community, some of whom may have reached the end of their “knowledge” but we should still assume they are doctors. We need to remain humble to the fact that what we do not know is “infinite” in comparison to what do know. (AC 1557) Therefore as clergy we must reach out to our congregation in the spirit of co-creation, doctor to doctor. As pointed out in the Arcana, “The Lord’s Church differs from one group to the next, and not only from one group to the next but sometimes from individual to individual.” (AC 3451)
Personally, the creation of a sermon writing team may have been the most significant change at NCL compared to how I formerly functioned. We employ a team approach from picking topics, to crafting the message, to sharing thoughts/ readings during the service. I say it without hesitation – the most resonant ideas that I speak are gleaned from the thoughts of others – a fact consistently reinforced week in and week out.
Examples abound. Our recent series on “Lets Build a Church” included topics that were encapsulated in wording that absolutely got right to the core of the New Church message in language that was highly accessible. A sermon on “The Empty Chair” for example spoke of the need to keep space open for others in the church. Of course, the concept was not hard to grasp, but wording/ language such as that opens up the message in new and memorable ways. The same is true for the graphic for the series. A volunteer designed it. It captures the concept of “Church Universal” in a brief, memorable snapshot.
Worship as a Sunday activity is made real by worship as a Monday activity. This is a clear New Church teaching.
The essential divine worship in the heavens does not consist in going to church regularly and listening to sermons but in a life of love, thoughtfulness, and faith. HH 222
The Monday morning experts are sitting in the congregation! They know the experiences of “love, thoughtfulness and faith” in the arena of life better than I do, encumbered by own ego, blind spots, and prejudices. Importantly, they know the questions. Clergy, as one author famously noted, must stop answering questions people are not asking. I believe we better hear what questions are in need of answering if we partner with our congregants. That requires an outlook more aligned with partnership than has traditionally been the case.
TCR 38 holds that the two essentials of the church are goodwill and faith. Aligned to the that idea is the concept that “A person who lives a life of faith and compassion is constantly at worship.” (AC 1618) The compelling why behind volunteering therefore is self-evident. And here is another area where the New Church concept of partnership as being “mutual and reciprocal” can be applied in fresh ways.
A traditional approach to volunteering is listing the needs of the congregation and/ or community and then asking who would like to fill what need. This approach is not without merit. And yet there is a deeper form of volunteering that seeks to ask people what it is that is calling to be born into their lives. Out of that grows ministry – a volunteering born of the heart vs. just duty. Ask out of duty, and someone will deliver their body. Ask of their heart, and they will deliver their spirit.
Restated, imagine a congregation that is highly effective at tapping into the deeply held loves of its congregants. In a recent conversation, I shared a laugh with a NCL congregant who is willing to give us 12 hours of her time writing and unwilling to give us 1 hour of her time parking cars on Sunday. The pastor’s role then is to help her develop that love of writing and to help discuss the avenues where her particular gift can be a made an offering in her church. And the miracle? We have people who love parking cars.
Importantly, this deeper partnering allows church to be a dynamic entity. For example, a typical volunteer list includes (a) hosting/ ushering, (b) music, (c) Sunday school. NCL has much the same list. That being said, if a, b, and c are the sole opportunities of giving, what does that in turn say about what church is? To me it says church is static – limited to a, b, and c – which is hard to support given New Church teachings which center on the fact that love in action is what remains.
In the ministry approach far deeper springs are tapped into. There is a meeting of a person’s strengths, their loves, and the worlds needs. Restated in New Church terminology – love, wisdom and use. Through that small convergence in the middle, passion is born, and truly generative service grows. We are able to give to the given use out of our live and gifts. And we can trust that God will bring people to our congregations who can fill even the most mundane of tasks with the passion born of useful service. And where “service rules the Lord is ruling.” (HH 564)
Out of this approach to growth Small Groups can grow. Some groups will spring from a more traditional desire within the congregation for instruction. Other groups will grow from a desire for community or to delve into a topic. Regardless, the groups will spring from congregational interest.
This ensconces the small groups in relevance. The congregation requests and forms what they want. We are to serve spiritual hunger, and spiritual hunger is particular in nature. Not everyone hungers and thirsts after the same particular thing. One individual may be excited about a reading group because they are in a learning phase, another may be searching fellowship and are more pulled towards community building. Therefore creating a process that allows these particular interests to bubble to the surface is important.
Engaged people engage people. Engaged people invest in relationships. Investing in relationships in turn grows a church – the “invest and invite” strategy of evangelization. In other words, if the congregation takes the partnership model to heart and applies it in their own lives, that partnering in turn will bring others into the church. If we can create church where the modus operandi is “walking with” that is exactly what we will get. “If you plant corn, you get corn.”
As Jesus notes in the Gospel of John, “Feed My sheep.” Yet we live in a world where the primary concern is “Am I fed?” That is true of many church attenders. If they feel “fed” they return. If not, they leave. And clergy – and I include myself here – can feel that way as well. Am I “fed” by my congregation?
Growth in a real sense will not come from those merely looking to be fed. It will come from a counter-intuitive flip of perspective. This flip is where the concern moves from being fed to feeding. Can I feed others? Can I invest in the relationship? This is the question that must be asked by both laity and clergy. And that is where compassion and love come alive – true worship.
You continually pray when you are living a life of kindness, although not with your mouth yet with your heart. That which you live is continually in your thoughts, even when you are unconscious of it.” (AE 325)
Then we live into the Great Commission, making disciples who carry forth the message – not as piles omniscient teachers but as engaged learners, focused students out to be vehicle for bringing the Kingdom to the world.