This week Acts 8 asked us to answer “what is the mission of a congregation”. This question left me scratching my head wondering how I could have missed the answer in the two sets of confirmation classes I’ve sat through. I found it easy to picture the congregations I know, to name what had drawn me toward them and even imagine something of what we do as a group. Yet even in the midst of those experiences trying to name THE mission of a congregation felt like an impossible task. After all how could I synthesize the service work of gleaning the fields and gathering canned goods for those who are hungry with the elation of belonging at worship or the intimacy of shared meals and conversation? Beneath all of those missions was there a MISSION that was directing them?
Then I remembered what it was like when I first crossed the threshold of the red doors. I’d heard about the Episcopal Church from friends, had looked though the website, but had no idea what to expect. What I found was the oddest group of people I’d ever met*. They spanned the ages from elementary school to those described in the most recent annual meeting as EXTREMELY retired. Clothing spanned from proper formal wear to my (slightly tattered) jeans. As I looked around at this group of strangers there was something, well off, about them. There was a flow in how they interacted, in what they said and did that defied explanation. When they noticed me, they didn’t open with a series of questions, but with a quiet direction to a prayer book, and gentle orientation to worship. It was in that first Sunday that I learned that Christianity meant something more than scoring top points at Bible Bowl or defending a five point salvation plan.
As time unfolded my appreciation of that introduction began to grow. The community of the congregations I saw worked, squabbles and disagreements notwithstanding, because every action was rooted in an understanding of belonging that centered in unity of Holy Eucharist. From worship on Sunday flowed the worship of picking up trash during the Hunger Walk, the freedom to ask hard questions, and the certainty that no matter what I brought I would still belong.
Through my years in the Episcopal Service Corps I was given language to describe what I’d been fascinated by, and kept returning to see. What had entranced the anti-Christian grad student who’d gone to church to appease a New Year’s resolution wasn’t a diverse selection of service programs, absence of conflict, or even the PERFECTLY DESIGNED WORSHIP SERVICE ™. What fascinated me, leading me to question everything I’d assumed about faith and church was the community, the Christian community of flawed people loving each other to the best of their ability (and often beyond). I was hooked by the depth of hope, the brilliance of ideas that reflected through different prisms of experience and the expectation, the invitation, that I could be a part of them.
What is the mission of a congregation? As far as I can tell the congregation is the training ground for Christian community. The place where vastly different people center themselves in Christ’s love to such an extent that love must by its nature spill into their interactions with each other and the world around them. Our congregations are the places where individual faith, questions and doubt are molded into the crucible of common prayer in such a way that space is formed to witness God’s transforming power. From this center, at the heart of who we are as congregations, our missions (lowercase m), such as hospitality, service, and outreach, flow unrestricted as the Gospel flies from our doors to bring healing to a troubled world.
*Now that I’ve traveled a bit more I realize that most congregations probably feel they have a monopoly on the “oddest” group of people. In my experience each place I’ve been could claim the “oddest” title in different ways. I think one of gift of the church is that we’re all a bunch of odd-balls, but we’re dearly beloved, odd as we are, so that’s ok.