What Makes a Church?

Probably because Old South’s Annual Meeting is this coming Sunday, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a church. At Sunday’s meeting, if I were to survey those in attendance, I would probably hear a lot of answers that include someone who “serves on a committee” or “a person who comes to worship regularly” or even “someone who’s on our member list” (whether or not they participate actively).

But, I’ve been wondering more and more about how we broaden our concept of what it means to be “church,” and how we tackle some of the really tricky questions, especially when it comes to this thing that we call a “congregational” church, which is what Old South is. How do we define “congregation”? How can we include people who consider themselves part of our church, even though they don’t come to worship (not even once in a while) or serve on a committee?

As I think about the very different ways through which people are connected to Old South, I find a wide variety of ties to the church. There’s one man who shows up in the office every December to drop off a check. I don’t ever see him in worship, but I know that he considers Old South to be his church. There’s a woman who occasionally comes to funerals, and stays connected through my weekly e-newsletter and sometimes through email correspondence, but I’ve never seen her in a regular worship service. We have a few people who actively participate in the bell choir, but only during “bell choir season” in Advent and Lent. I have an increasing number of people who read my columns that have been published in the local newspaper or posts to my blog. Some of these people actually reach out through email or an occasional face-to-face meeting. How much can we stretch the elastic of Old South church? Who’s “in” and who’s not? To what extent does the question even matter?

Then, there are those we find out through obituaries. “So and So” was a “long time member of Old South Church,” even though we’ve never heard of that person and can’t find them on any of the rolls. For some reason, though, they considered themselves as a part of our church.

Clearly, there’s a wide array of people who feel connected to Old South, but what does it mean for people to just feel “connected” to a congregational church, without really participating in the life of that church? And, perhaps even more challenging of a question, how much of my time (especially as a less than full-time pastor) should I spend keeping the connection with those who feel at least somewhat connected to the church (or perhaps are thinking, even just a tiny bit, about getting connected to the church) but don’t contribute to the financial bucket that keeps the church afloat?

I recently attended a workshop that challenged traditional notions of what it means to belong to a church, thinking about new, web-based notions of “parish,” incorporating Facebook, YouTube, and other social media. This idea is compelling to me, yet I wrestle with this very new, and multi-dimensional, notion of what makes a “congregational” church. The workshop, unfortunately, did not include a discussion of the financial end of things, but that’s important too. It’s great to be connected to a widening group of people, and to know that one’s ministry is meaningful to others. But, I’m already a less than full-time pastor—and the finances of the not so distant future are looking not so good.

So, I’m wondering a lot about what the future looks like. I think it’s powerful to think about a widening sense of “parish,” and to pull in a multi-dimensional approach to ministry. If Jesus were around today, I’m not so sure that he would have a Facebook page or a blog, but I’m quite sure his disciples would. But, the question remains: will I still be able to consider “ministry” as my profession, and not just my vocation? Will I be able to continue to make a living as an ordained clergyperson, or will I eventually need to have a different profession that pays the bills, with ministry happening on my own time?

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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