I've been working part time for the better part of a year as a research assistant on a project related to congregational conflict. We are now in the phase when we interview individuals in the congregations we are studying.
In an interview last night with someone who has a long history with his church, one of his comments really struck me.
I had asked him what this congregation meant to him, why he stayed after all these years.
He said, "I have witnessed moments that were just breathtaking, a manifestation of people living out their faith. I have looked around on a Sunday morning and I see J, who is struggling as F ages and becomes more ill, I see D, who is at the end of life and who is so supported by the people around her, I see T, who was so embraced and prayed for and welcomed back after he was incarcerated...these people live their faith in such a quiet and solid way. I can't imagine going to another church."
Breathtaking. It's a stunning word, one that we rarely hear used about churches. And it has nothing to do with the liturgy, or the great music, or the physical space.
It has to do with the community.
The light that shines is in the care and the welcome and the lack of judgment and the actions within this community and toward the larger world.
How to build breathtaking community?
I suspect it's about modeled behavior, from the lay and ordained leadership first, then spreading through the whole place.
The person to whom I spoke told of a time when the back-door communication network (read: gossip) drove how the church dealt with its differences. By creating structures of openness and forums in which to share ideas, eventually they overcame the clique-ish conversations that fed difference.
The person also spoke of an ethos of suspending judgment and supporting in love those who were struggling, even as this congregation sought to help each person to grow into the best version of himself or herself.
Choices have been made that are not necessarily about making this the hippest or coolest or most slick church. These choices recognize that each congregation has its own history and identity, and those need to be honored as well. Yes, they'd like to grow, and they are, slowly. But they won't sacrifice who they are and what they are to each other simply to pump up the numbers. Their growth is organic.
Differences are, in fact, celebrated. Everyone doesn't have to share the same likes or dislikes. Different activities feed different parts of this faith family, and no one feels like they must participate in everything...or for that matter, anything beyond Sunday worship.
I'm still chewing on what makes for a breathtaking faith community, but I am more and more convinced that it is not about the externals. It is about what John the Evangelist said in late life, according to Eusebius: "Little children, love one another."
It is about saying that, and meaning it, and living it in community. And when you see it, it is indeed breathtaking.