I’ve been pondering what makes any given congregation feel vital and vibrant, a living and active part of the Body of Christ. Now, an abundance of programs and professionals currently thrive on the business of shaping & encouraging life within congregations—my home congregation participates in one such program, with valuable insights gained and wonderful results seen. Although I am a church professional, I am not one of these Church Professionals, so I offer these observations primarily as a church goer and church lover (though my “pastor voice” is never far behind!).
On occasion, I have the opportunity to worship outside of my own congregation. Although I’m prone to extreme academic analysis (during worship, naturally) of a congregation’s homiletic and liturgical traditions, I also pay close attention to my personal, emotional & spiritual experience of worship and the church’s environment. How do I feel in this space? How do the words and hymns settle in my spirit? What resonates, and what does not? How do I experience the interactions with people here?
The experience of aliveness in a congregation—by member and visitor alike—is both personal and communal, highly subjective and occasionally objective. In the jumble of understanding such a mixed experience, those of us in the church often turn to scripture; for me, thinking about living church has led me to reflect upon living water…and the biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus (John 4). What makes a church living, and what lends itself to my experience of that congregation as a place of living water? What makes a church—not dead, no, the opposite of “living” in this instance is “dry”—and what contributes to my feeling that a congregation is a dry well (at least for me)?
John 4:6-7. “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.'” Living Church observation #1: The person who asks for a drink—the member or visitor who comes to a church for spiritual refreshment through worship, education and fellowship—is always Jesus. Think Matthew 25:35. My experience of vitality in churches is immediately & intuitively assessed by my experience of people caring for one another (or not) as Jesus in their midst.
Here the subjectivity of experiencing congregational vitality is obvious: church members may feel deeply cared for within their own space among familiar faces, and therefore members experience strong vitality in their home church…yet a visitor can experience this communal bond as a barrier between the insiders (members) and outsiders (newcomers). Or, a visitor may feel warmly welcomed and invited into that system of support. Or, a visitor may experience an overbearing welcome (it’s possible) in which the congregation—supposed to be an avenue for Living Water—becomes itself the one that is thirsty and needs the visitor to supply the water (“Oh, thank goodness, a fresh face!”).
John 4:17-18. “Jesus said to her, ‘What you have said is true!'” Living Church observation #2: I experience spiritual vitality in a space where I can be who I am, as I am…whether at home, with close friends, or at church. The conversation between the woman and Jesus at the well is very candid and (as I read it) non-judgmental. Vibrant congregations welcome and make space for honesty with one another, honesty with God, honesty with ourselves: who we are, as we are, as we are becoming.
If however, when Jesus is among us and in one another at church, we feel the need to put on our best airs and hide our brokenness…well, pshaw…life is missing! (That said, kindness and grace are always appreciated, especially in church committee meetings!)
John 4:11-12 and 28-29. “The woman said to him, ‘Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?’ … Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'” Living Church observation #3: A vibrant and relevant church knows its history and sees its future. The woman at the well—the Church—knows the marker of her religious and cultural traditions (Jacob’s well: past) and she accepts new growth/revelation for her faith (Jesus the Messiah: future).
Now truthfully, this observation reflects my church professional voice, and my joy in building a congregation’s familiarity with its past and discernment for its future. If we assume the past/future work to be ongoing for a congregation, then we can focus on the woman’s action in the present: proclamation. Here my “church professional” observations can be set aside (sort of) to consider my observations as a church goer and church lover: What do I discover about a congregation by listening to what it’s proclaiming—both within its doors and outside of them? How do I feel invited and encouraged to proclaim alongside a particular church community as an activity of my faith?
We each experience the aliveness of a congregation in very individual ways, and the “fit” with one’s chosen congregation varies for reasons that can be measured and explained…and for many reasons that cannot be articulated: gut instinct, “mood” and language of worship, our own moods on any given day, the season of life in a church, etc. For me, a congregation is vibrant when it imitates the woman at the well: visibly caring for Jesus by refreshing one another, creating safe space for honest relationships (including relationship with God), and actively proclaiming good news.