Friday, August 22, 2008

Keeping up with the prophetic voice

Well, I thought I could keep up. As our adult Sunday class worked through "Claiming Our Prophetic Voice," I wanted to blog on each discussion. I had big plans for capturing a "congregational theology," but I couldn't keep up, at least not on my own.

Ten months later, two concepts stand out for me: congregational discipleship and welcoming space.

Someone asked, what discipleship means for us as a congregation of some means? The idea of congregational discipleship came out of this. We came to see that the demands of discipleship, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and so on, really cannot be met by an isolated disciple. But a whole congregation can do all that we are called to do. This has fundamentally changed my view of discipleship. It is not an individual pursuit, just me and Jesus. Rather it takes a whole and healthy body of Christ.

When we come together to worship, we are the gathered body of Christ. In our gathering is the full presence of Christ and the Church. Though our numbers are limited, we fully participate in the whole. We can be the presence of Christ right here, where we are. In fact, the Spirit has strategically placed us right where we are so that Christ's love may be present here, now, in this culture. Recognizing this purpose of the Father, we follow Christ in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit to work out our discipleship together.

This is both freeing and demanding. I am freed from feeling like I must personally do everything or even participate directly in everything. Instead, there are times when I can simply witness what God is doing through others in my congregation. This witnessing is--I think--a form of worship. We can praise God for what God is doing in our midst. In fact we have open announcements right in the center of our worship service. This is also when we take two offerings; a monetary offering for the work of the church and a food offering for Intown Community Assistance, which works with the homeless in our community.

Why should announcements and offering break the "continuity" between the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments? There may be a deeper continuity. It is the living of the Gospel before our neighbors, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit in service to each other and our wider community. Between Word and Sacrament is Living and Service.

But congregational discipleship is also demanding. I do have a call to certain works. I too must live and serve in this discipleship. I can't simply sit on the sidelines or in the pew and content myself that "congregational discipleship" is happening. Neither can I act without accountability. I must personally be apart of this shared discipleship. I have particular roles to play and gifts to offer as the Spirit has given to me.

What is welcoming space? It can be contrasted with the traffic metaphor. Early on this metaphor illuminated for us so much of what holds us in bondage. Our lives become busy traveling always from point A to point B, points that seem constantly to be moving. And we find ourselves stuck in traffic. So many other drivers are simply in our way, and they disregard us a being in their way. We are mutually strung out along strips of pavement. The fantasy of the automobile is driving carefree in wide open spaces. The reality is narrow confinement and endless traffic.

This is pretty much the opposite of welcoming space. Welcoming space is spacious, not constricted to a few lanes of travel. Here we encounter each other in a positive and affirming ways. We welcome each other. We are not strangers stuck in traffic together. The gathered body of Christ forms a holy space--a temple really--where we can encounter God and each other. Our ministry to the community is to safeguard this space for its wholesome purpose and to keep it ever opening and welcoming to the stranger.

In practice, St. John's provides a variety of hospitality. Not only do we have space for our own religious meetings, but we provide space at little or no cost to other groups in the community. This is a particular ministry. We also have retreat facilities at our church, and we provide rest and growth opportunities to the wider church. For example, each summer several youth groups come for a week-long Urban Immersion programs where they can learn about the challenges and ministry opportunities before us in the Atlanta area. We like to have an evening with each group where we can draw them into our drumming circle and reflect together on the Word. The space we share is not just physical but spiritual as well.

Ministry happens in the space we open to each other and to God. Welcoming space gives us a view of who we are as St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta. Tending and expanding that sacred space is our shared discipleship.

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