Thursday, March 13, 2014

Not My Type—The Sequel

In a previous journal (which you can find here) I suggested that people are looking for a particular “type” of congregation.  It is a bit like all those ads for dating services that we see on TV.  These services specialize in particular types of mates:  Christian Single (if they are not single, why are they viewing a dating service website—ever wonder that?); Jewish; over 50; under 25; marathoner; etc.  People know with great particularity what they think they want.

People seeking a church are also looking for a particular “type” but may not consciously know that they are being selective; they do,however, know when a particular congregation feels “right.”   At least that is what Israel Galindo writes in his book The Hidden Lives of Congregations—Discerning Church Dynamics. He writes that congregations demonstrate six broad styles of spirituality.  People intuitively sense very quickly whether a particular style is their “type.” In my last article I listed the first two of these styles:  cognitive and affective spirituality.  The other four styles he lists are pilgrim, mystic, servant, and crusader spirituality.

Pilgrim Spirituality:  This a church for people who want to be “on the journey.”  They are hesitant to commit to a single worship style or denominational identity.  Gatherings, including worship, are highly interactive and experimental.  They are comfortable with drawing from multiple faith traditions and entertaining open-ended questions.  Even if the congregation is large, much of church life is grounded in small groups.  This type of spirituality can foster openness and tolerance.  On the other hand, it may weaken members’ resolve to take stands or actions out of conviction, lest they appear provincial or narrow-minded.  In being open to all things, they may lose an appreciation for their own traditions and practices.  People who need a more affirmative confession of belief may quickly move on to another congregation.

Mystic Spirituality:  Mystic tends to describe not so much a congregation-wide characteristic as it does a subgroup within a larger congregational system.  The majority tolerates this subgroup as an unusual but harmless presence within the larger body.  This subgroup is contemplative in their spirituality, taking it very seriously and practicing it through classic spiritual disciplines.  Listening and silence are key components of their seeking after God.  They seek inward spiritual formation that requires a level of dedication and discipline that few are willing to embrace.  They seek worship experiences in small group or retreat settings.  At its best, this style fosters profound growth in people.  At its worst, it generates an isolated group that is disconnected from the broader community.  This can lead to a withdrawal from the world and an overly pietistic and private expression of faith.  People must maintain a healthy balance between inward and outward expressions of faith.

Servant Spirituality:  Congregations who embrace this style rally around the cry:  “Faith in action.”  Discipleship that results in ministry to the world is at the core of this congregation’s life, and they believe that authentic faith “gets its hands dirty.” This congregation is busy mobilizing people, helping them discover their gifts, and encouraging them to share their resources.  They have strong clarity of purpose. Teaching focuses on obedience rather than on understanding.  They would rather train people than indoctrinate them.  These churches are concerned with their image in the community and are often a powerful witness to the Gospel through their immersion in the community.  At their best, these congregations push people to embody their faith in concrete ways.  At their worst, they breed a type of “works righteousness.” They sometimes lack a strong rationale for why they do what they do.  They must keep a strong theological imperative for their work in order to maintain a balanced well-rounded faith.

Crusader Spirituality:  Like servant spirituality, these congregations also have an outward focus to their lives; but they are focused on a mission task and not necessarily the needs of the world.  This mission task can be any number of things:  a doctrinal emphasis or orientation; a denominational identity; a social issue; a reactive posture to something in the broader culture; an ideology; or a perceived injustice.  Congregational life coheres around one or more of these causes.  The life of the church is narrowly focused and all aspects of church life are a variation on a single theme.  All resources are geared toward this one task.  Other orientations are not given a hearing.

At their best, these congregations engage the broader world in the public square and make their presence known in an unapologetic way.  At their worst, these congregations can seem very narrow and exclusive to those who do not share their singular passion.  They can end up alienating perceived enemies and actual friends.

Conclusion: A congregation’s spirituality style informs the church’s belief and practices.  It shapes worship and the expectations placed upon pastors and lay people.  It influences who feels welcome and at home in the congregation and who does not. 

Visitors are trying to discern: “Are these people like me?”  This is done more intuitively than analytically, meaning we don’t realize we are doing it.  People do this by listening to the language we employ, identifying the music and liturgical style we use, and observing how the members relate to one another and what they talk about.  They look at the church’s programming and role played by the pastor within the community.

You may look at all these styles and see something good in each of them and say, “I like them all;” but no congregation can be all things to all people.  Some congregations are our “type” and others simply are not.  Galindo concludes (pg. 113) that understanding the hidden spiritual style of a congregation can help leaders and members appreciate that no congregation is for everybody.  He goes on to write “the clearer a congregation is about its own hidden spiritual style, the better it can serve its members and the more effectively it can move toward providing a more balanced approach to worship, education, practices, and relationships that address all of the components necessary to foster effectual faith in its members.”

Think through how you experience your congregation and try to uncover why it is your “type.”  The wisdom born of this exercise will better equip us to appreciate and strengthen our fellowships.  It will also guide us as we seek to include others in our congregations.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister