Church as Congregation

by Reggie McNeal, extract of his new book Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church.

For most of Christian history congregations have served as gathering places where geographically approximate adherents could practice their faith. It was not always this way.

For most of its first three centuries Christianity was mainly a street movement, a marketplace phenomenon that spread through slave populations and social guilds of free laborers. Gatherings of adherents took place primarily in homes and some suitable public places, convening primarily for fellow- ship, teaching, and worship. However, the gatherings were not the point or focus of Jesus-follower spirituality. Christianity was primarily a practice, a way of life.

Love of God and love of neighbor meant adopting a life of sacrificial service that distinguished followers of Jesus as a counter-cultural force, differentiated from those around them by the character of their lives. Early believers rescued babies (especially girls) abandoned by Roman households. They stayed behind to tend to the sick people when plagues drove the population out of the cities. In other words, Jesus followers demonstrated allegiance to Jesus primarily when they were away from their gatherings, engaged in lives that typically and routinely intersected with and included non- Jesus followers. The church represented a lifestyle that was radically different from its cultural surroundings but radically committed to the well-being of the people in the culture.

Along the way, though, this orientation changed. The church movement became domesticated. The imperial edict by Constantine is usually blamed but a shift was already under way with the rise of a clergy class. These two forces— the need to create a state religion and a clergy eager to comply—combined to centralize and institutionalize the Christian movement. The church congregationalized. This move profoundly altered its way of being in the world.

The idea of adherents gathering together as the central practice of the faith gained ascendancy when the church settled down into a religion dominated by clergy. Church as congregation developed the expectation that people would demonstrate their devotion to the faith by participating in congregational activity, which centrally involved the worship service. Rather than a lifestyle of counter-cultural sacrificial love of neighbor, adherence to ‘‘the faith’’ became centered on assenting to a set of doctrinal beliefs. Christianity became defined as a set of theological propositions rather than a way of life.

The ensuing schism between belief and practice promoted a sacred-secular dichotomy that greatly influenced the nature of congregational life as something distinct from the rest of life. Church became a ‘‘sacred place’’ where specific religious acts were performed. The congregation served as home base for Jesus followers, a sort of refuge, effectively pulling the church off the streets. Loyalty to Christ was measured by one’s participation in congregational activity. In exchange for this support the church provided religious goods and services to its ‘‘members.’’ The ‘‘member culture’’ would eventually give rise to a culture of competition, as congregations vied for the affection and financial support of existing and potential customers.

The most enduring legacy of the congregational church is its worldview. Church as congregation became something other than the people who were its constituency. The church became an ‘‘it.’’ It stood outside people. This notion is in contradiction to the New Testament understanding of church as a ‘‘who.’’ Biblical teaching on the church sees the church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus in the world, an organic life form vitally connected to him, even married to him, depending on the metaphor chosen by the writer. Church as an ‘‘it’’ followed the inevitable path that all institutions travel. Institutional goals eventually became separated from and supplanted spiritual mission. The clergy, who initially served as spiritual leaders because they were spiritual leaders, over centuries became increasingly captured by organizational concerns at best or political agendas in the worst cases.

Although the Reformation adjusted some of the theological categories, it did little to alter the notion of church as a congregational expression. In fact, Reformation ecclesiology remained centered on the congregation. Church vocations still referred to clergy roles. Orders and practices guided and focused on what the church did in its corporate gatherings, worship, and activities. In many denominations the idea of church itself became inextricably tied to the proper administration and functioning of gatherings, worship, and activities, especially if it was a way of distinguishing one denominational tribe from another.

The post-Reformation modern era did not move to alter the congregational understanding of church. Though several developments affected its practices, nothing challenged the ruling paradigm of church as congregation. Twentieth-century developments in transportation and the corresponding infrastructure such as freeways allowed people to travel greater distances more quickly with relative ease. People could choose among congregations to select their spiritual ‘‘home.’’ This, in turn, fueled congregational competition, giving rise to the customer-service orientation of the contemporary program church (and spawned a church growth industry that promoted the idea of building even bigger and better ‘‘churches’’ — meaning congregational organizations). The assumption was that community and individual transformation would result from having great congregations with well-trained clergy and lots of programs.

The rise of the megachurch in the second half of the twentieth century paralleled what was going on in the retail world as the center of gravity shifted from the ‘‘mom-and- pop parish’’ to the large ‘‘big box retail centers.’’ These megachurches have maintained their core sense of identity as a congregation—that is, for those who attend, church is something outside of me that I belong to, that I attend or ‘‘go to,’’ an institution that I support.

This sweeping and admittedly broad-brush treatment of church development over the centuries might sound as if church as congregation is and was bad. I do not mean to imply or even to suggest this. To the contrary, many congregations do a lot of good. Some pack hundreds of backpacks of food every week to send home with school children who are food insecure. Others conduct mentoring and tutoring programs for underperforming students. Some churches are building wells in overseas villages so people can have access to clean water while at the same time creating microeconomic development opportunities for the villagers. Still others work to liberate women and children from sex traf- ficking and slavery. Certainly without congregational effort, the clean-up efforts after Hurricane Katrina would have been far less extensive and effective. In fact, the faith community saved the day for many—and is still working to rebuild that part of our country. Disaster relief abroad as well would be much diminished without the altruism expressed through American congregations. Added to all this is the spiritual teaching and nurturing of millions of Americans each week! All of this should be honored and celebrated.

Nor do I mean to seem to be predicting the end of the congregational expression of Christianity. Millions are served in their spiritual journeys through its efforts and millions more are helped to enjoy a better life through its ministry. The congregation is here to stay!

I am simply trying to point out that this one view of church has been so predominant in Western culture that it has made it seem as if it is the only legitimate expression. Anything that takes place outside of ‘‘church as congregation’’ has seemed suspicious to some. Even terms like para-church—a word that makes no sense biblically (one is either in the church or not)—is an organizational term invented to affirm the supremacy of church as congregation. It has taken years for the house church movement to gain respect, even though it was the predominant form of church expression in the first three centuries of the Christian movement and is a potent life form in countries where the church is growing virally.

What I am after here is opening up the discussion of missional communities so that we can begin to see that God is up to something new. I am suggesting that we expand the bandwidth of how we think church can express itself in our culture. We need to or else we are in real trouble.

Even with the rise of megacongregations, decades of emphasis on church growth, and large infusions of money and people resources, the congregational approach to ‘‘doing church’’ has entered its declining period. Church attendance is holding up as well as it is only because Americans are living longer. Even so, participation is slipping. The prognostication is not good. A variety of indicators all point to the same conclusion: we have entered an era that is ripe for and needs a post-congregational church.

Reggie McNeal will be speaking on October 14th, 2011 at the “At the Corner of…” conference.