IN THINKING OF congregational life, and especially congregational health, I find it helpful to think in terms of striking a balance between three key elements which I refer to as the “three way connection.”
These three elements are: connecting with God, connecting with each other and connecting with outsiders. The congregation that is able to keep each of these clearly in view and to focus intentionally on each of them is a congregation that is well on its way to effective ministry.
Effective ministry depends first of all upon helping people to connect with God. This is at the very heart of the Gospel which St. Paul describes (2 Cor. 5:17 ? 20) as the good news of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.
The first responsibility of any congregation is to help its members connect with God. This goes far beyond simply being able to “say the creed,” and sing and pray in public worship. As Leslie Newbigin has pointed out, if it is true, as the Bible insists, that the God we encounter in Scripture is a person, then we get to know this person by entering into a relationship with Him.
Most relationships don’t get far if they are conducted exclusively in the third person, talking about the other party as if he/she was not there, rather than speaking to and being in conversation with that person. Our congregational life in its worship and teaching should be designed to bring people into a personal encounter with the God whom we know in Jesus, an encounter that issues in an informed life of discipleship and growth. It is in this connection with God that faith becomes dynamic and vital. Outside of this, church life devolves into stifling institutionalism and dreary religious ritual. Churches that fail to help people make this connection are, quite bluntly, destined to fail.
But while the Christian faith calls for and demands a personal response to the invitation of the Gospel, it goes far beyond mere individualism. Given the highly developed individualism of our culture this is sometimes difficult for us to understand. But Christianity is a corporate faith and calls us to a communal way of life. The second key element in congregational life then is “connecting with each other.” Healthy congregations make it a point to develop into genuine communities.
I am not speaking simply of helping people get to know each other, although that is certainly a good start. What we want are communities where people know they are loved and valued, and that they will be cared for; communities which are safe and loving enough for people to be able to risk vulnerability.
The Christian community should be a place in which people can genuinely bear one another’s burdens, pray for one another, encourage one another, and yes, even dare to challenge one another! In the prevailing anonymity of contemporary culture, people are aching for genuine community. It is in such a community that the gospel can truly be heard and real life change can occur.
But this emphasis of connecting with God and of connecting with each other should not lead into an ingrown, self-centred community. The natural dynamic of the gospel is always to be reaching out to those who are yet strangers to the good news of God’s love and grace. It is a primary mission of the local congregation to be sharing this news and this invitation with all who are still outside. The third key emphasis of healthy congregational life then is “connecting with outsiders.”
Most congregations in some way seek to reach beyond themselves with various initiatives in supporting the life of the local community and helping people who are struggling in various situations. This is wonderful, as far as it goes; but often it does not go far enough because such efforts frequently stop short of creating opportunities to share the good news of reconciliation with God and new life in Christ. The mission of the church is not simply to support ministries of compassion and justice but also to invite people everywhere to find new life in Christ. I am not playing one off against the other here; I am saying that both are needed to complement each other and to form a credible witness.
The key in all of this is to find a balance between the three points of connection, because all three are necessary for congregational health and effective ministry. How is your congregation doing in balancing these three areas? What are some of the things you might wish to start, or to stop, or to continue in order to achieve and maintain a healthy balance? Is there a place in your parish where such a discussion could take place? Canon Harold Percy is rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Streetsville, Ont., and the author of several books on evangelism.