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Theology of Who We Are

Popular wisdom suggests that churches are defined and divided by their theology. Liberal churches are more socially concerned but less spiritual, it is said, and conservative churches are more spiritual but less socially concerned. My observation of scores of mainline and evangelical churches defies this stereotype.

Liberal or conservative theology is less often the inspiration for a congregation's tendency to mobilize for social ministry than is the church's image of itself. Churches, like people, behave in consistent patterns they have a character; their actions reflect their beliefs. In addition to observing congregations over time, we can learn their theologies of practice by listening to the stories their people tell. From the way congregations explain themselves to others (and to themselves), my colleagues and I identified five patterns of faith in practice that appear about equally biblical and theologically valid. As explained in our book Energizing the Congregation: Images that Shape Your Church's Ministry (Westminster John Knox, 1993) these congregational theologies are foundational to the ways that each church worships God, seeks leadership, raises money, makes decisions and embodies their faith in action. Since these are no mutually exclusive, you may recognize more than one in your congregation.

  • The Pillar Church feels a civic responsibility for the place where it is located. Its architecture tells its story; its pillars lift the roof physically and the community spiritually. The Pillar Church projects an Atlas responsibility for members to uphold the larger good for everyone. This congregation expects to attract the town's movers and shakers. Their resources of heritage, facilities, finances and leadership are devoted to sustaining the whole community.
  • The Pilgrim Church describes its history as a journey over the years (emphasizing people, as opposed to the Pillar's awareness of place). Some Pilgrim congregations have moved with their people from one dwelling place to another. Their traditions and faith are woven into a single fabric, culture and faith inseparable. Pilgrim churches carry that culture proudly, in the aroma of their traditional cuisine and in their willingness to fight for the rights of "our own people." Some Pilgrim congregations become multicultural. "Old ethnics" and "new ethnics" merge their exodus stories—when settled Scots and newcomer Koreans, for example, share a worship space.up
  • The Survivor Church identifies itself by the storms it has survived; it loves crises. These parishes attract and sustain people who take pride in daily survival. The congregations and members live on the edge, on the verge of being overwhelmed by emergencies. They do not expect to conquer their problems, but will not give in. They are determined rather than domineering, relentless rather than aggressive. They have a taste for constant adventure, like Indiana Jones, and always come through. Although outsiders may see weakness, members know that the congregations are resilient, productive and loving, especially in times of trial.
  • The Prophet Church tells thrilling stories about how it challenged the injustices of the world, be they perpetrated by evil individuals or callous corporations, in local communities and distant nations. Independent and often entrepreneurial, these crusaders are committed to changing the world. As the Survivor church lives on crises, the Prophet church finds high energy in identifying and transforming evil situations. These high-profile congregations often make an impact far greater than their size.
  • The Servant Church tells heartfelt stories of helping individuals in their times of need. Parishioners respond to people who come to them, visit the sick, take meals to the bereaved, tutor struggling youth and touch the lives of all they meet. Although they are a caring network, they are generally unaware of the systemic failures that may cause and perpetuate conditions that hurt the people they care for. As servants, they respond to individuals rather than to societal issues.

These congregations perceive God acting through them, but in different ways. They renew their stories of their pasts in evolving ministries. Sensitive pastors can even enter the stories and change the congregational self-image over time. But pastors who are deaf to congregational theology often inhibit the most natural sources of spiritual energy and in the process reduce their own leadership potential.

November-December 1997




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