Some years ago a friend told me that he had asked his 16 year old daughter what she considered to be the safest place in the world.
She pondered this question for a few moments, and then replied, “It would have to be last month at our annual congregational retreat, when we ended by forming a large circle, holding hands, and singing Bind us Together acapella."
I had been part of that same circle, so I spent quite a bit of time pondering her response. What was it about our congregation that led her to make this powerfully moving declaration?
As I pondered, I realized that she was describing our congregational culture. It was as if she said, “There’s something about our congregational culture that makes me feel very safe." (Although I’m sure she had never heard that phrase before). Congregational culture refers to that hard-to-define reality which embodies the way folks experience a congregation. And my friend's daughter had named her experience.
Culture is hard to define, but it’s comprised of practices that are concrete and observable. So, I asked myself: What practices has she been part of that have shaped her way of experiencing the congregation? This is the list that came to my mind:
- Every Sunday she heard us share prayer requests prior to the congregational prayer, and as she listened, she learned that believers of all ages had joys and struggles and were willing to be publicly vulnerable with one another.
- Every Sunday she heard preaching that pointed to the gracious heart of God, preaching that was shaped by sturdy theology, illuminating stories and lovely humor, a combination that helped to engage her on a deep level.
- She was a good musician, and the church provided opportunities for her to sing as part of an intergenerational worship team, and to regularly play her clarinet as part of an accompaniment ensemble.
- She had regular opportunities to exercise specific leadership gifts in areas such as writing for the congregation’s newsletter and teaching Sunday School.
- The annual retreat itself was a congregational practice that her family never missed, and somehow it served to consolidate and focus all the other practices.
I could add more to the list, but you get the idea. She participated in a set of congregational practices that, when experienced together, shaped a congregational culture that felt to her like the safest place in the world.
I’m continuing to ponder my friend’s daughter’s comment, because two of my deepest longings are that (1) thousands of believers of all ages would say similar things about their congregations, and that (2) Faith Formation Ministries—along with several other CRCNA partners—would continue to support congregations in forming such places.
Why does this matter?
Paul declares that our congregations are temples, places where God himself lives! There’s a direct connection between the way we experience our congregations and the way in which we come to know God. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Ps. 18: 2)
In other words: the safest place in the world.