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Institution? Or Christian Community?

Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task… Acts 6:3



Dear Friends in Christ, How we understand the church has a big impact on our experience of the church—and on the church’s thriving. One seminary professor observes that for a few hundred years, American society found identity in institutions—civic, religious, economic organizations that helped define a person’s identity and values. But in recent decades, our culture has felt more anti-establishment, more suspicious of institutions, whether in government, business or religious life. More and more, people seek to create their own individual identity, and craft the life that suits them as individuals. Instead of valuing ‘association,’ we value authenticity,’ and often we each define what that means for ones’ self. Both approaches have serious pitfalls, especially in how we understand the church. Over time, church for many became a social institution, an association that defined them, a place of pride that one assumed would continue if we served the ‘club’ well. You can think of the caricatures of church in this model: the social club, the community action group, the liturgical reenactment society, the political organizing center (left or right), the concert hall (either for contemporary or traditional music). These caricatures of the church take good and right aspects of Christian life and steer them far from our purpose and mission. The ‘personal authenticity’ model also has its failures. When the self is at the center of life, then we worship the meaning we make (we worship ourselves). We see this alure in evangelical and progressive flavors, where worshipers go “where I am fed” or “to the place that fits me” rather than the place where God calls, challenges, equips and sends us—together. We consider our own desires more than how God calls us to commit to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Ultimately, the quest for meaning and purpose based on the individual’s own invented ‘truth’ fails, for we do not make truth. We can seek truth, but that takes looking outside of ourselves. Yes, we must bring ourselves and be honest about ourselves in the process, but ultimately, God is the one who gives us purpose, and in God we find the truth and true meaning. We too easily confuse our own ideas with God. Eventually, people will realize that there must be something more, and they seek that truth that is really true—the meaning and purpose that is truly reliable and not based on our whims or the latest fashion. When such seekers come to church, however, they sometimes find the institution! They find affection for association and insider language and the apparatus of the organization. Sometimes the church gets focused on itself more than its mission. So the seekers are still seeking, and the institution loses the vitality that called it into existence. God calls us to be a Christian Community, empowered by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is at the center of who we are and what we do, then we will thrive. We will live more closely to our meaning and purpose, and those who are seeking will more likely find their heart’s desire. We will encounter God more together in our relationships and in our life together. This is the dream that God has for the church, and the core of the vision that we have discerned at St. Peter & St. Paul. Of course, as a human community, we are not perfect in this endeavor. That is true for all churches. In fact, our desire to be more fully a Christian community is helped by leaders who have organized to be effective in leading and empowering the church. Our community thrives with the skills and insights of clergy, with the musical skills of trained professionals, with the gifts of lay leaders whose calling is in Christian formation. With any appreciable size, the community is helped by having a building in which to meet, staff who can manage finances, talented people who can coordinate ministry and effectively communicate our message within and beyond this community. These leaders, thus organized, form a helpful structure to empower us to be a Christian community more fully, a place where seekers can be welcomed and supported in their journey. But doesn’t that structure resemble an institution? Ah, there’s where the risk and opportunity co-exist. If we are good stewards of this community, then we need that structure and leaders, we need those finances and buildings and resources to be faithful. That institution can get off track, especially if we lose focus from our purpose. But when on track, the apparatus of the church helps us serve our Lord more faithfully. You play a role in all of this. You are part of this community and indeed part of that apparatus of ministry that supports Christian community. You make a huge difference in whether we thrive or fizzle for God’s purpose. How do you, personally, strengthen the body of Christ? How do you make a difference for others in prayer, ministry, worship, finances, study, personal invitation, caring relationships, service to our neighbors, and other aspects of the Christian life together? This Sunday, we will have a parish update meeting between services (9:15 – 10:15). Some of this is a reflection on the parish as an institution—its finances and staff and buildings. Ultimately, these reflections are about our collective response to God’s grace in our lives—about who we are as a Christian community. Each of us play a part—not just an institutional role, but a spiritual role that then is lived out in material and concrete ways. Each of us play a role not just as individuals, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. And if we are good stewards of what God has given us, then the institution will be a source of strength for the community God has called us to be. And we will bear fruit for our Lord in keeping with his purposes for us. How has God called you to help this community thrive? Yours in Christ, -Tom

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