Communities or Congregations? Part 1 of 2
All of us, if indeed we are human, have a sometimes fierce undercurrent of longing to be a part of, to belong to, something. This desire resides in humanity’s core. It’s an element in our spiritual DNA. For many of us, coming to faith in Messiah includes an immediate recognition that we do belong – we are a part of something outside our narrow selves; something welcoming, vast and beautiful.
Being a child of the West, I grew up with strong societal values of diligence, independence, self-sufficiency and excellence. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the years of my childhood were peaceful but with a strong focus on personal individual growth and development. It was good to have friends, but families were the all-important matrix of belonging. The problem was that so many families were dysfunctional and broken; hence the longing for belonging was not satisfied by the narrowness of the nuclear or even the extended family. For the one who embraces the life of faith, the local congregation is the assumed locus of belonging.
For many years I’ve been hearing a line of thought that consistently exalts the local congregation to a place of absolute importance for the life of a believer. The “congregation” is the new community to which we’ve been joined by virtue of faith in Messiah. Congregation is seen as the reservoir of spirituality and meaning for the congregant. Commitment to the local congregation is advocated as obligatory for anyone who wants to grow in faith, maturity and stature in their walk with God, and we soon discover that submission to the “God-ordained leadership” is a basic principle in most local congregations.
The congregation and its leaders tend to look suspiciously at those who are outside their systems and see them as disaffected, rebellious or misfits. Anyone who is not in a congregation is thought of as negligent and is urged to see the error of his ways. The often unspoken accusation is that those who leave are looking for what they can receive rather than what they can give. They are consequently labeled as selfish. Those who choose to disassociate themselves from the mainstream congregations are judged harshly by the system they’ve spurned. Ironically, this default of judgementalism is likely to be one of the multitude of reasons why so many are leaving the established local congregations.
There was a time when I thought this way. I looked at those who didn’t find their place, and my conclusion was that it was something in them that was the issue. Rarely did I look deeper and examine if perhaps there was a congregational dynamic that was problematic. It was often true that those who “left” the local congregation were those who simply did not fit into the system. Those who leave do so for many reasons, many of which are valid and need to both be articulated and heeded. Leadership maturity is characterized by its ability to be self-critical rather than defensive.
Today I question the concept of the “local congregation” as it has developed over decades in the Israeli context. I see many issues and problems with structures, with leadership, with unspoken expectations and with the Messianic Evangelical culture that’s become the majority mainstream. I understand why so many, both young and old, have left the local congregations. For me this is not a negative trend because of what is growing and flourishing parallel to and in contrast to the older structures. I see a rapidly growing number of house fellowships, of smaller groups who are committed to one another on deep levels, who meet together to worship, to share their lives and to be mutually accountable.
For more thoughts from Q on Communities and Congregations, Part 2 of 2 will be posted next week