7 Marks of Vital Congregations – Part 7
1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 24b–27; Matthew 15:1-9
I was surprised that they used that word, ecclesial, for the name of this last mark. Do you know what it means? (Show of hands) Do you use it very often?
When I write that word, “ecclesial” in my word processing program, it is underlined in red, which alerts me to a misspelling or of using a word not in its dictionary. So, I googled it and the web browser does recognize it as a word: “of or relating to a church.” Ecclesial refers to church as “building” as well as church as “congregation.”
If you use the word “church” in a conversation at the grocery store, do you think most people will think of a building or of people? Raise your hands. And if you use the word, “ecclesial?”
So why didn’t they just name this final mark, “church health?” Maybe they wanted us to dig into just what this word means. So, a brief foray into the Greek. Ekklesia is a Greek word for “assembly of citizens.” It was used for political assemblies, as well as other gatherings, public and private. It is one of 17 words used for the Jewish synagogue, so it is not too surprising that Jesus’ followers picked it up. It refers to a collected body, especially those called to the gathering with a particular responsibility. “Ek+Kaleo” means to call out, or summon. Like last Sunday, the session “called out” a special meeting of the congregation and expected the congregation to be present to do what they were called to do – to amend our church bylaws. True, some of the things for which people are summoned are not very dramatic, but they have a role in being well-organized and healthy.
Today is the Sunday called “Reign of Christ” in the Christian year. It is the last Sunday of the Christian calendar. (Next Sunday we begin a new year with Advent.) Why is the Reign of Christ the last Sunday of the year? Because we believe that all things will come to completion, peace and unity in the kingdom of God in the end. And Christ, the divine-human one, we will look to as the one who has our best interests at heart for love and justice.
Reign of Christ also gives us a clue to being the “ekklesia.” As called out ones, we are called out of the regular way things are done in the world, to live into a new order of love and justice. Our primary obligation is not to any human government, but to the reign of Christ. We have been called out of the world, in order to serve Jesus in the reign of God.
What do we mean by “the world” in this context? I believe it could be translated “popular culture.” We are called out of the popular way to do things based on fame, wealth and success. We are called instead to give our lives to serve all.
So, ecclesial health refers to how a congregation operates for the Kingdom of God. What values and practices characterize its methodologies? Ecclesial health is about how we are church. In some ways this mark gets us to the nitty-gritty. Are we organized prayerfully and according to the values of Jesus? Do we look at our organization and budget with the creative work of the Spirit in mind?
In a sense, the mark of ecclesial health loops us right back to the first mark of vital congregations: Lifelong Discipleship, which essentially means living what we believe 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is not a Sunday practice, but a lifestyle practice for every day. The mark of ecclesial health specifically asks us to consider how our congregation is a group disciple of Jesus in its gatherings and practices, no matter how mundane. Are we living together as the ones called out by Jesus to follow his teachings? Are disciples individually (the first mark), and now, are we disciples as a community (the last mark)?
In Matthew 15 Jesus calls the Pharisees to account for their lifestyles, which protect their traditions rather than follow the demands of the Law. We must examine our selves for how we might be subject to the same criticism.
Lets look at some examples of how our organization is based on following Jesus. Our employee handbook contains a section on what to do when there is conflict in the work life of an employee.
Step One: Any employee should first raise any problem or grievance verbally with the other person involved.
Step Two: Employees should then raise any problem or grievance verbally with their immediate supervisor….
Step Three: If a grievance is still not settled, employees should file a formal written grievance with the Head of Staff….
Step Four: If a grievance is still not settled, employees should file a formal written grievance with the Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church Personnel Committee….
These steps are clearly based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, to go first to the one who with whom there is disagreement. If there is no reconciliation, go with one or two others, then finally if no resolution can be accomplished, take it to the church. This way honors the other, even through conflict. It is how we serve each other and still protect the values of justice.
What else? The Book of Order (part of the Presbyterian constitution) requires that all meetings are opened and closed with prayer. Why? It places all we do under the wisdom of Jesus. It is asking God to give us both the wisdom to know what to do and the courage to do it.
One of the characteristics of ecclesial health is regular, gathered and individual, heart-felt prayer. We pray in all our gatherings. So far, so good. But are our lives shaped by prayer, by a deep dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit? Some traditions have regular prayer meetings involving some or all of the congregation. An hour or more spent in prayer. Together. We have Night Prayer, which is a small group of people dedicated to 30 or 40 minutes of prayer together. We have a small group who meets in the library to pray before this service each Sunday. It is a beginning.
This week, I read about a church revolutionized by prayer practices from our Korean brothers and sisters – two articles from the United Methodist Church. A practice unique to the Korean tradition is Tongsung Kido. Essentially, it is the entire gathered community praying aloud, and loudly, at the same time for an extended period of time. This prayer style is born out of the deep personal pain and trauma of the Korean people. They cry out to God to hear their prayers for justice and mercy, to come to their aid. Another person described how his encounter with this profound spiritual practice moved him from atheist to believer, and changed communities from vacant churches to living, vital, communities connected to their neighborhoods and doing good. Prayer was at the heart of change.
Each community will have its own style. When we create communities which have spiritual practice at their heart and from the heart, we have communities which bend and change according to the movement of the Holy Spirit. In these places we are no longer like the Pharisees, defending and protecting our traditions over our relationships. Rather we are shaped by the love and justice of Jesus.
You will receive a letter from our church session this week. It is something we do every year – asking you to give us an idea of how you hope to invest in the ministry of this church in 2020. This year, we have added a prayer. “Lord Jesus, please send to us the people and resources we need to do what you are calling us to do.” We are asking you to post it somewhere in your home or office where you will see it and pray it with us several times a day. It is a call to bathe our goals in a prayer for what God, in Creator-abundance, can do among us. So don’t throw the envelope away, even if you cannot give. Please, join us in the prayer of many hearts.
Another example of ecclesial health. Are our practices based on our mission and values? Do we evaluate all we do in terms of the mission and values of our congregation? One of the phrases of our mission statement is that “we know the Holy Spirit is a work in our world ahead of us.” This week, I encountered a new theory of organizational change which takes this into account. Organizational life cycles used to be diagrammed like a bell curve – beginning, to thriving, to dying. There are modified models which show diverting paths off the bell curve, moving back around into rebirth. Like the main curve gives birth to new lives.
This new one is called the “two loops theory.” Essentially, it describes an organization beginning with a pioneer, or a small group in a pioneering effort. As these pioneers get named and connected to other partners, the vision grows into a community of practice. And when enough communities of practice come together, it becomes a movement, which changes the culture. At this point, it also becomes a self-sustaining system and can make its own tradition ruts and get stuck.
The difference of this model is that there is always in it another loop forming. A healthy organization will always have pioneering spirits who are yearning for something new. When they find each other, they begin to develop cohorts, and suddenly a new movement is born. The healthy system is always on the lookout for these new bursts of light and energy. Pointing them out to others and giving them space to develop. They give new life and energy to the whole organization. They become the second loop, not in opposition to the first, but partnered with it.
We have this concept in our mission statement. It is nothing new. It is a call to every organization as it becomes a tradition, to be on the lookout for the Spirit at work in the world ahead of us. Not just on the lookout, but also making investment in the new pioneers, the new ideas. Our presbytery has done this for us by investing in the Children’s Peace Choir.
Where are we investing our hearts and our money? This is a the question of ecclesial health. I definitely see marks of health among us. We have developed procedures to honor the vulnerable. We have patterns of prayer. We recognize the Spirit moving ahead of us, guiding us. And there is lots of room to grow. May the Spirit of God bring these and other practices to birth among us!