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Church is Not an End in Itself

Someone recommended an out-of-print book to me as the best thing she had read on pastoral care. I am not so actively involved in pastoral care anymore, but I was interested in the book and found a used copy through Amazon.

cultivating wholenessIn the early chapters of the book I read this:

Religious communities do not exist as an end in themselves, they are created in response to a call. Faithfulness to the call comes first. Community follows. Religious communities share a common vision or goal that is supported by theological understanding and nurtured by religious observance and spiritual practice. Secualr communities, too, bond through shared missions that are reinforced through ritual.

While religious communities differ in their theological expression and religious practice, Christians and Jews believe their communal experience is intrinsically rooted in their faith experience. Both groups study the Hebrew Scriptures and other sacred writings for guidance in their communal life. Both Christians and Jews acknowledge that those in their communities are able to love and accept each other and care for the world because God first loved them.

— Margaret Kornfeld, Cultivating Wholeness, A Guide to Care and Counseling in Faith Communities (page 17).

This is a valuable and important statement — and when churches loose sight of this they also lose their continued reason to exist.

bible-crossThe church does not exist to keep the church in existence. As churches decline, they grasp onto various methods and strategies for survival. But, one of the things that is most needed (not to discount the importance of methods and strategies) is to renew the center. As the risen Christ said to the church at Ephesus “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4 NRSV). The church exists in response to the call of God. It exists to nurture the faith and to teach the faith and to spread the faith.

People in declining churches often do not have faith stories to tell. They can tell the story of when they first started attending church, what committees they served on, but they do not have a faith story — and they often don’t know what such a faith story would be.

I know very little about Margaret Kornfeld. Apparently she is an American Baptist minister. Information I found online says:

Margaret was an esteemed faculty member of Blanton-Peale Institute’s graduate residency program. A previous teacher of pastoral counseling at Union Theological Seminary and Fordham University, Dr. Kornfeld is the past President of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a certified marriage and family therapist. Margaret is a minister of the American Baptist Churches of the U.S.A. and has been a pastoral psychotherapist for 30 years. She is also a consultant to the Imam’s Council of New York City as they begin to develop programs of care, counseling and healing networks in the Muslim community.

It appears that her experience — and, likely her over-all perspective — is quite a bit different than mine. Yet, I find that my own revivalism-influenced perspective resonates with what she is saying. What the church needs is (pardon me) revival — to re-forge its connection with Christ. This happens in worship and in instruction and in prayer and in personal response.

How is this going to happen? The Church Growth movement, from the days of Donald McGavaran’s classic Understanding Church Growth has rejected the revivalistic approach. It wasn’t an approach that produced the reliable, scientifically validated results McGavaran was seeking. And, indeed, it seems to me as well, that the old “revival meetings” of the past were often no longer producing the results that they should. They were often a far cry from the “protracted meetings” and other strategies used by Finney and his revivalist followers anyway. I’m not opposed to the notion that new methods are needed in a new day. But, what are they?

I know many people who found or renewed their connection with Christ at church camp. Many have found or renewed their connection with Christ at a weekend experience like the Walk to Emmaus. But, why must these always be off-site experiences? Back in the days when I was involved with camping ministries, I knew lots of young people who renewed their connection with Christ every year at camp — feeling little or no tie-in between that experience and their local church. We all know of people who have gone away to an Emmaus weekend or a similar experiencing — only to come back frustrated with their local church. Why can’t the local church be a more effective base for renewing connection with Christ and basic Christian experience? When renewal in faith is experienced outside the local church setting, it then becomes unclear how that should relate back to the local church. So, we need new or renewed strategies to help local churches renew the center.

We can’t renew the church without renewing the center.

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2 Responses

  1. Charlie Farnum August 12, 2015 / 3:04 pm

    I have seen this happen in subsets of a congregation, but not in a congregation as a whole. In many congregations there is no shared mission – people have joined for various reasons. Life-long United Methodists who are in their 60’s on up probably joined because “it’s the thing to do” – everyone went to church in the 50’s. Many of these people do have faith stories – but others have friend stories, or member stories, or institutional stories. I think it’s difficult to forge a faith community out of this mish-mash.

    We do see a lot of revival at Wesley Foundations. There are at least two key advantages: (1) no long-term membership means that the leader gets to set the tone, and (2) most students are in an incredibly formative time of life.

    I’m agreed that community is not the end goal, but not that the faith experience always comes first – at least not the faith of the individual. We have many people who are drawn to the community first, play around the edges, and then have a faith experience and dive deeper in. One of the struggles I regularly face as the pastor is maintaining both “Wesley is open to EVERYONE” and “Y’all are invited to come deeper in!” To be open to everyone means (to me) to allow people to play around the edges as long as they like without feeling rejected – and inviting people deeper in means letting people know it’s better at the center. Doing both without creating an “insider/outsider” feel is difficult.

    • Craig L. Adams August 12, 2015 / 3:27 pm

      And the original Methodist movement was interesting in that regard. The itinerant preachers like Wesley created interest, but the invitation was to join the society. Once in the society, there were classes and bands for deeper involvement — people were at various levels of involvement.

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