Being the Church
A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For May 7, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Based on Acts 2:42-47 and 1 Peter 2:19-25
When I began my formal religious studies over 30 years ago, Liberation Theology from Latin America was just coming to attention. It was a new way of doing theology, and I was interested in Latin America for numerous reasons. So I immersed myself in reading this theology. One of the core discussions in liberation theology is the church as community. I read about community again and again in different books and articles.
My sophomore year I was part of a mission trip from my college to the Dominican Republic, and my senior year to Costa Rica. What I observed on both of those trips was the joy of being community – a joy that could not be, had not been communicated in the dry pages of journals and textbooks. It set for me what has been a lifetime of observing, studying, and working to create community – because I believe the sense of community is essential to being a healthy church.
Said another way, being the church means being a community.
Where I have seen Lyonsville be most healthy as a community is at times of crisis. You gather well when someone is ill, when someone is dying, when someone has died. Your care for one another is most readily expressed when one of you is at their most vulnerable.
And you have a legacy of strong families. I have mostly observed those families gathering at funerals. Preceding those funerals, I watched as you also gathered in times of illness to accompany the ill and their families.
Ben and Garnett Adams,
With each I have seen the immediate family and then the extended family gather, support, and comfort in wonderfully nurturing ways.
I am still learning these patterns, and still observing these patterns, so I ask for your help to better understand why it is that crises are times when Lyonsville most readily comes together. Why are illness and death the times when you are best at being church?
Another place where Lyonsville excels at being church is around food. Your major fundraisers are food-related. Your mission work is mostly food related: the food pantry, Chicago Food Depository, Feed My Starving Children – even the alternate gift fair sells food items. When you gather outside the church building, it is usually with food: the Women Baby Boomer’s Breakfast, the men’s breakfast, Church Women United’s meals and at Baker’s Square. Most churches gather with food – in fact there’s something in Christian DNA to gather to break bread together. Our main sacrament is bread and wine. Food is part of being Christian – but, Lyonsville, you seem to have taken this to extremes!
I think (and I really hope you’ll tell me if I am right or wrong on this) that illness, funerals, food all represent being most vulnerable physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I think you intuitively know those are times when others need support, so you rally around at those times. It is when you are strongest and healthiest as community.
I am bringing this up because I hope you will be able to articulate the values beneath these actions. Yes, the action is good. I am asking why it is important, why it is meaningful, why these particular actions express values you share as a community. I am trying to help you be more conscious of your values so you may be more conscientious in continuing to act on those values.
I am also bringing this up because I want you to be more aware of a potential danger. These expressions of support are wonderful – if you are part of the family and extended family. For those who are not part of those family networks, there is the risk of feeling left out. I expect you will say what I have heard said in so many other congregations: if others would just join us, then we would welcome them. After all, we’re friendly, we’re welcoming. If they would give us a chance, they would find a place where they fit in.
Being welcoming and being friendly is not the same as helping others become part of the community. Announcing activities is not the same as actively recruiting others to attend; getting people to an event is not the same as making sure everyone feels they are part of the activity.
While I was in seminary, I got to personally know and befriend Floyd Shaffer. Floyd is credited with starting clown ministry in the late 1960’s – a credit he is quick to dismiss. Floyd enlisted me to help him with one of his weekend workshops. These weekends included Floyd leading a clown worship service on Sunday morning, something similar to our Holy Humor Sunday. Just before walking in to start worship, he turned to me and said “I know you’d probably like to sit up front, but I recommend you sit in the back so you can watch the audience transform into being a congregation, and a congregation becoming a church.” With that he stepped into the sanctuary to begin worship.
Watch an audience transform into being a congregation, and a congregation becoming a church.
After worship, and for years after, Floyd and I had conversations about how a clown, and even how a pastor, helps those transformations occur.
You have strong relationships here at Lyonsville. That is an asset for you. When visitors arrive, they are mostly an audience to those relationships. How will you help them be transformed from being an audience to being part of those relationships? How will you continue to nurture those relationships, which closely follow some family patterns, so that they expand to become congregational relationships? And how will you transform as a congregation to being the church? These are questions immediately in front of you as your Pastoral Search Team works on the congregational profile. These are the questions that will shape your future ministries. These are the questions that you must answer as you enter a new chapter in Lyonsville’s history with a new settled pastor.
As I said earlier, you have a good foundation from which you need to be more deliberate.
It’s a good time to be the church.