Church: My 40 Frustrating/Rewarding Years

It is graduation week at The John Leland Center for Theological Studies, an occasion that almost always puts me in a reflective mood. Forty-three years ago, I was one of those newly-minted seminary graduates heading to begin a lifetime of ministry in and through the local church. It was 1970 and the world was changing. Rapidly. But since the church in general and Baptists in particular tend to lag at least several decades behind the rest of the culture, it was no later than the 1950’s in my world. In retrospect, I realize I received an excellent theological education but was also trained to manage a church. I wasn’t very far in ministry before it began to dawn on me that the church I had been trained to manage no longer existed — if indeed it ever did exist in reality. The benefit today’s graduates have is that they KNOW the church is in a state of transition, and no one knows the shape of church life and ministry toward which that transition is moving. They will be among those who help to define the shape of the church tomorrow. In my current reflective mood, I’ve been thinking about the fact that the “church” is not just one thing. It has many expressions, and each of these expressions has strengths and weaknesses. In my forty-three years of living and ministering with churches I’ve experienced the various frustrations and rewards of these different expressions of the church.

Without question, the most frustrating and aggravating and disturbing expression of the church is the church as an institution. Having “come of age” during the ’60’s, a decade in which every institution of society was challenged and found wanting, I admit to an anti-institutional bias. At the same time, I cannot imagine the church existing without some institutional qualities. But institutions are heartless. Soul-less. One of the formative books of my seminary years was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, one theme of which is that inside an organization (an institution) even moral individuals act in immoral ways. Even good people become infected with the first law of any institution — be it church, corporation, educational, or any other. That rule is the survival of the institution itself, whatever the cost. Including the moral cost. I believe that this is the expression of church against which so many are reacting today. The “Nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” are turned off by this expression of the church. But so are many of us who live and minister within that church. It is my greatest frustration in ministry to see decisions being made out of this first law of institutions.

Another expression of the church is the community itself. The people who are the church. Within this community are as wide a variety of persons as there are in any similar segment of the broader culture. They are also at different places in their spiritual formation as Christ-followers. There is great reward in watching them grow, in hoping that maybe you had a little bit to do with that growth. Of course, when they act in ways that don’t reflect the spirit of Christ, there can also be a real sense of failure. The church as community can do some wonderful things for others that reflect Christ’s presence in them, but as people they can also grow very comfortable with one another so that they become like a social club. They like one another and enjoy being with one another. The church and its on-going life becomes a very comfortable place for them to be. The danger is the development of a tendency to preserve the status quo, because this community has come to mean so much to them and they feel so comfortable as a part of the community. They may even do some real good, but there are many social clubs that also do many wonderful altruistic things. There is nothing wrong with that, unless this group of people is supposed to be even more.

The church is also supposed to be an expression of the Kingdom of God. Not the only one, but a meaningful one. If a minister is lucky over a lifetime of ministry, he or she will have the joy of observing from close range the transformation of a few individuals in such a radical way that wherever they are it is clear that the Kingdom of God is present there. In my experience, this doesn’t happen very often. Jesus did say that the gate was narrow and the way difficult that lead to this kind of radical transformation. He also said that there are only a few who find it. But when privileged to share the journey with one in whose life this transformation takes place, it is the most rewarding thing in ministry. This is the church as the Kingdom of God — persons radically transformed who then transform culture.

Over these 40+ years in ministry I’ve been asked more times than I care to count about how many my church has baptized, how many buildings we have built, how big the church budget is. Institutional questions. I have never been asked, Do your people behave more like Jesus since you have been ministering among them? That’s the Kingdom question. I wish I could always answer that question in the affirmative, but I cannot. I have become much more focused on the Kingdom. I’m not against a church flourishing as an institution. I’m not against a church made up of a group of people who genuinely like and enjoy one another’s fellowship and want to enjoy what they have as a community. But both of those things can be present and the Kingdom of God be nowhere to be found. So, if I were delivering the graduation address this year, I would tell our graduates to keep their focus on Kingdom-building. You’ll have to give attention to the institution that calls you and supports you. You’ll have to minister to and care for the people who make up that community of faith. But never lose sight of the fact God has called you be a transforming presence in that institution and for that community. God has called you to Kingdom-building, and nothing that does not focus on that will make for successful ministry.

Faith University: One’s Church Congregation

A congregation is the space where faith is practiced, rather than one in which the Christian faith merely is discussed. Clearly, the Christian congregation may not become the only place that those who follow Christ express their faith. Wherever those who follow Christ go, they should express their faith in both word and deed.

Still, the Christian congregation is that place where faith is practiced. Those interested in learning of Christ can experience the presence of Christ in fellowship with believers gathered together. Those learning to walk in Christ receive the nurture and encouragement to begin, to fail, to succeed, to celebrate their growth. Those who have traveled extensively in Christ continue
to learn in community, learning to trust, receiving encouragement in their fatigue and patience in their expectations. In dozens of additional ways, a Christian congregation serves as a laboratory where believers experiment with the teachings and the power of Jesus. The congregation is that place where faith is practiced so that God’s people can more perfectly express their faith in both
word and deed wherever they go.

How clearly the Amish taught the American public in 2006, by example, the power of a congregation (as did the Amish and the Mennonites of the 1600s). An Amish congregation learned the values and the power of peacemaking and forgiveness in their exclusive community, their laboratory for the Christian faith. When tragedy struck in Nickel Mines, PA, their faith held, providing a clarion witness to faith, to forgiveness and to hope. The recent tragedy in Newtown, CT, underlines the importance of this witness from 2006, one that surely will be essential in the coming years, as well.

How do we practice congregational life today? Many seek to strengthen the functions of a Christian congregation: worship, discipleship, fellowship and outreach. Congregational leadership and congregational life are examined, studied and tested, in the light of techniques from a variety of academic disciplines. Authors write of principles learned. Consultants offer advice to thoughtful leaders. Still, the result of all this reflection seems to lose its appeal to both the practicing congregation and those who live outside it, as well.

The congregation is a place where Christian faith is practiced, even evidenced, where the Christian faith is followed, where one learns the faith so that he/she may responsibly demonstrate that faith in the world. Only through practice of the Christian faith can people complete the promise of the Christian faith. Now, our world sits on the edge of a New Year, uncertain of the coming challenges. Our country teeters on the cusp of a so-called fiscal cliff, divided by political ideologies that appear more important than the common good, than agaph. Is it time for the Christian congregation, the Christian community to learn to practice hope so that others might
see the hope which only comes in Jesus Christ?

Dr. Robert Cochran

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