Ministry and Community

There are some exciting conversations about theology going on these days. Most of them aren’t happening in the church. Increasingly as I strive to serve a congregation, I find that I need to be aware of the conversations that are occurring outside of the congregation. Part of the reason is that no one can honestly serve a Christian congregation in the United State these days without giving serious thought to the people who aren’t in the room. Whether the congregation is large or small, urban or rural, growing or declining - we all share the reality that our congregations do not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located. There are people who are not participating in the church, and that group of people is, according to several Pew studies, the fastest growing category when it comes to religion in America.

So I pay attention to a lot of conversations that don’t take place in the church. I do it enough that some of the members of the congregation I serve have noticed. I’ve had several conversations over the years with congregants who wish I would spend more time visiting in nursing homes and reaching out to elders in our congregation. They are sure that I could make more time for these tasks if I would only spend less time volunteering in community nonprofits and service agencies. They are right that I should be spending more time visiting. They are also right that I could make more time available for visitation by focusing my attention on those people who are members of the congregation and not worrying so much about those who are not members. I try to look for the truth in that kind of conversation and adjust my life in response to the truth I discover. I have adjusted my schedule. I cannot, however, faithfully serve this congregation if I am not serving those who are outside of the membership. And, I am convinced that it is critical that our congregation pay special attention to those who are not attending church if it is to find its future areas of service and ministry.

Outside of the church there are many people who have been injured by the institution. There are folks who have been hurt by church policies, people who have been turned off by dogmatism, those who disagree with church politics, folks who see no future in institutional religion, victims of clergy abuse, and lots of other folks who have no interest in the institution of the church. They may have given up on religion, but they have not stopped thinking about God. They continue to engage in theological thought. And they continue to engage in theological discussion - its just that they don’t do it in front of church folks that often.

It is interesting to me that there are even a lot of academic theological discussions going on in places other than the church. The public radio program and podcast On Being with host Krista Tippett, frequently engages serious academic theologians and discusses topics of God and the relationship of spirituality to every day life. There are several other podcasts to which I listen from time to time that engage academic theology, but are hosted by and engage mostly people who are not church leaders per se.

I have a couple of friends who have degrees in academic theology, biblical studies and other areas of religion who are not active in a local congregation of the church. Some days, when I am frustrated, it seems as if there are parts of our church’s Conference and National settings that are terribly far removed from the everyday life of local congregations. I once asked, at a meeting of national leaders of our denomination, “Do any of you actually go to church anymore?” It was a rhetorical question and unfair of me, but there was a grain of truth in the sense of distance between denominational leaders and the local church.

Serene Jones, who is a minister and who is active in the church, and who recently was interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being, is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She makes a big point in her writing and lecturing about the distinction between religion and theology. She may be right that there is plenty going on in religious institutions that is less than thoughtful and less than studied about God and the relationship of God to the people.

She is, like many young theologians, a bit too individualistic for my tastes. I am so firmly rooted in the traditions of discipleship as a communal adventure that I don’t understand the contemporary popularity of one-off individual religion, practiced with a certain purity and consistency of thought, but without the presence of a community. Still, her thought is often brilliant. Her particular theology is deeply rooted in place, somewhat different from many Old Testament writers.

She does, however, redeem herself in my eyes by inviting that all good theology must be public theology. She asks, “What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives and the meaning and purpose of our lives and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together?”

It is clear that my own theology continues to grow and develop and that I need to keep talking with people outside of the congregation I serve in able to be able to talk in a meaningful way to the people I am called to serve.

It comes down to a basic theological conviction. I really believe that God loves everybody and the world. I really believe that God forgives in mercy everybody and not just a select group of people who agree with me. If God loves and forgives every body, then I am called to take seriously both the congregation that has called me to be its pastor and the community in which it is located.

Advent is a perfect season to remember the “both/and” nature of our calling. The announcement of the Christ child didn’t occur within the walls of established religion. The announcement was made to those who were outside of the immediate faith community. The Good News is for the whole world and not just the folks who are most familiar to us.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!