I have recently been thinking about what an ideal church, for me, might look like. So, I have come up with five marks of my ideal church. Of course, no one congregation will be able to embody these five marks perfectly. I have no delusions of finding or creating an actual ideal church. But I think these five marks can help guide us towards improvements and in what direction we should go. And I am curious as to how others would imagine their ideal church, so please leave comments.
My five marks are built on the tagline of my denomination’s (Christian Reformed Church) Disability Concerns agency: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves. I like that vision and that inspired me to build on it. For my student club at York University – Leadership, Culture and Christianity – I expanded the themes into: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Discerns, Everybody Leads. For my ideal church, I have added a fifth: Everybody Witnesses.
Everybody means everybody – men and women, young and old, typically abled and disabled, all ethnic groups, rich and poor, even Christians and non-Christians. I believe in creating a culture of graciousness and acceptance where even those outside of the Christian faith will feel welcome and would like to stay longer.
Obviously, though, different people will have varying degrees of belonging. The long standing church member of 20 years will obviously have a stronger sense of belonging (or should be) than the new visitor of three weeks. But the idea is that this is a community that, on principle, excludes no one, especially in terms of its practice.
This does not mean that everybody gets what they want. It’s not a pandering to all whims and fancy to make everyone feel happy and comfortable. I don’t think making people happy and comfortable is the goal or aim of God’s church. I believe God’s community is about transformation of both the members and of the world outside the community. Such transformations would almost certainly require going – literally and metaphorically – into uncomfortable zones and would require change, sometimes painfully so.
Rather, to me, belonging is fundamentally about being able to receive from and to contribute to the community in equitable ways – not identical ways – as anyone else in the community. Hence, everyone, from the child with disabilities to the non-Christian visitor, are allowed to both receive gifts, blessings, ideas, thoughts and fellowship as well as give them. In my Theology over Pizza (TOP) gatherings at York University, I have tried to create such a community of belonging. Non-Christian students who attended TOP were encouraged not only to ask their questions and receive the opinions of the community but also to give their own opinions and thoughts for us to receive.
In other words, it is about mutual giving and receiving, which brings me to my second mark.
This is an extension of the concept of belonging. Everyone, again that means everyone, not just those who are qualified, or those who are official members, or those who are old enough, or those of a particular gender, or ethnicity, or ability – everyone is encouraged to find a way to serve through their passions and their gifts. And this encouragement will almost inevitably require the space for experimentation. A person might have to try out different forms of service before landing on one that fits well with one’s passions and gifts.
Furthermore, one serves according to one’s ability and knowledge. Over the Christmas break, I visited my in-laws in Ottawa and my daughters were roped into playing music for my sister-in-law’s church’s Christmas Eve service. My two older daughters were good at their respective instruments, the French Horn and the Bass Clarinet. So, they worked them into the worship band that included my brother-in-law on Trombone, niece on Drums, and nephew on Keyboard. What we did not count on was for my youngest daughter, a five-year-old with Down Syndrome, insisting that she becomes part of the ensemble! She might have thought it was a family affair – as it practically was – and that she, as part of the family, would naturally be part of the band! She “plays” her little recorder and she practiced with the others when they practiced. They thought it was cute and let her do her thing.
But the Christmas Eve service came, and my little one was complaining of being scared, which puzzled us. But we realized later, of course, that this was stage fright! She had it in her mind that she was playing with the rest of the band! Eventually though, after a few songs, she got the courage to go up front with her little recorder alongside her older sister, and started blowing her recorder. She wasn’t all bad, as she only played when everyone else was playing, and she relatively kept to the beat. And it helped that she didn’t played too loudly!
But I was most grateful to my sister-in-law, and to that church, for allowing my Down Syndrome daughter to be part of the band. They allowed her to serve in her own way, at her own ability. She belonged.
And I believe, with some imagination, and some graciousness, we can find ways for anyone to serve, in their own ways and at their own abilities, at their own time, in the church community.
This point connects with the role of Scripture in the church community. I believe in the mutual communal dialogic discernment process of the community when it comes to understanding Scripture, and especially, when it comes to applying Scriptural truths to our everyday lives. This is not about mastering or deciphering a code book or a rule book for slavish blind obedience. Rather, as I have blogged elsewhere, the Scriptures gives us a map of reality, of our ethical and spiritual reality as human beings, and we need to discern the best way to navigate, with the aid of this map, our messy world and lives. But this discernment should not be done alone but the aid of a community – other friends, at least – we can find the best paths to travel together.
Such community also includes the community of those who have gone before us – the Christians from the past whose thoughts we have in their writings and books – and such, the historical Confessions play a role in helping us discern Scripture and our mission. The exact nature of the role of such historic teachings and traditions in our churches would require a blog unto itself. But, for now, I think the confessions and traditions should not act like straight-jackets that restrain us from exploring new ideas but more like the string that keeps the kite from being blown away but yet allows the kite to fly and soar to new heights.
Communal discernment is also important in helping us discover our blind spots when it comes to understanding Scripture and applying its truths. I have blogged on this elsewhere too.
As a corollary of everybody serves, everybody also is allowed to lead. Leadership, to me, is one form of service to the community. The leader is also a servant of the community, and seeks the community’s good, not one’s own. Again, as with service, everyone leads at their own ability and ways.
What I try to do with my student club at York is to create a leadership culture, where everyone is encouraged and allowed to lead in some capacity. For instance, in our Theology over Pizza gatherings, we encourage different students to take turns being the facilitator of the discussions, which involves making sure those who want to speak get a chance to do so, that no one monopolizes the discussions too much, that no discussions get out of hand, and bringing up topics for discussion if there is none forthcoming from the community. Students sign up in advance to facilitate on certain dates, and we ensure that some guidance is given to them. Of course, it all starts with modeling – those of us who are official leaders of the group, model how it is done first for them.
In our study groups, as well, I try to ensure that students/participants get an opportunity to lead a session, with proper support, help and guidance. And, again, those of us who are official leaders, lead by example and modeling, showing the way first.
In these ways, I am trying to build in leadership formation into the DNA of the community. And I believe that building grace-filled leaders are important to God’s mission in the world.
Finally, this marks my ideal church as a missional church. It is not a church that simply looks after itself – in fact, it is already implied earlier above that service includes not only service within the community but also service to those outside the community. The community does not exist for its own sake, it exists for the sake of the world, for this is God’s mission – to reconcile and redeem all things – and hence, the church’s mission.
A corollary to that, then, is the equipping of every member into a witness-bearer. As a community that is shaped by following Christ, we need to be able to bear witness to Christ, and our faith in Christ. Why do we follow Jesus? Why do we do what we do? Why do we have such a community with such principles and marks? We need to be able to give an account of our faith and our actions.
Hence, I would like to see every one become equipped in telling their own faith stories, their own faith journeys – why do they believe? What has sustained their faith? How is their faith expressed in their lives and/or in their vocations? Again, I believe, everyone – regardless of age and ability – can eventually be equipped to do this at their own level, faith journey, and ability, and in their own ways.
In sum, then, my ideal church has a culture of mutual belonging, mutual service, mutual discernment and learning, mutual leading and leadership formation, and mutual witnessing.