This is the first in a series of four blog posts looking at the Vision, Mission and Purpose statement drafted for a new, unified Conference. Delegates from the Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island conferences will vote on formally creating this new conference at the joint Annual Meeting June 15-16 in Springfield, MA.
The word that gets me in the proposed vision statement for the new, unified Conference is “unconditionally.”
The statement affirms, “that the local church exists to make disciples of Jesus, and we welcome all people unconditionally (my italics) to share in this calling.”
I think I know what we probably mean by that.
In a world where so many expressions of the Christian faith place significant conditions on who can proclaim the Gospel, and even on who has the “right” to call themselves Christian, we want to be Christians who leave that kind of parsing to God alone.
That sounds like us, all right. I like that about us. Always have.
But it’s a word that ought to convict us, too, and I feel as if I am only just beginning to see that.
Because even among us, our Gospel is far from unconditional, yet.
Our tradition is, by turns, tenderly personal and shockingly insular, boldly visionary and infuriatingly optative.
Our churches should be a powerful Christian embodiment of the charge to “think globally, act locally,” but often aren’t.
Perhaps that’s understandable: when you can’t change who’s in charge of the strawberry festival, it’s hard to muster much energy for welcoming the stranger, or casting the mighty from their thrones.
It isn’t acceptable.
Along those lines, a generation of church consultants has taught us to be attentive to the many ways in which “architecture is destiny” -- how over time, our buildings condition us: spaces define their uses… which is to say, our programs… which is to say, our people.
Similarly, all too often, we occupy ourselves with propping up certain local expressions of “churchiness” rather than proclaiming the Gospel to or for ourselves, much less our neighbors or the world at large.
But what if we learned to think more unconditionally, reopening the questions of “who are our neighbors?” and “where is our neighborhood?”
What if we reconceived the “architecture” of our conferences, reopening them to new configurations and programs, and new understandings of neighborhood?
How might that change us as a people?
For one thing, it might serve to clarify not only our challenges, but just as importantly, our partners.
Time and time again, the environmental movement has reminded us that political borders can neither contain nor keep out the broader ecological impact of a polluted river or a toxic cloud.
Along those lines, in a time of profound moral and spiritual crisis, to what extent can political or middle judicatory boundaries contain the impact of broken lives, institutions and systems? Aren’t we all constantly responding to many of the same crises? Why are we doing this separately?
It seems clearer and clearer that in the face of such times as these, the work of local churches is more urgent than ever, and the message about transformational love of God in Jesus Christ is the central plank of our every program.
Yet many of the old conditions that limited our partnerships no longer apply.
If we are serious about showing people who God is and what God does, as embodied in the life of our churches, we should celebrate this as a new-found freedom.
We should recognize that any two congregations may have much more in common than simply geographical proximity.
Their challenges, spiritual gifts and aspirations may make them uniquely powerful partners in ways that we should seek to foster, celebrate and learn from.
We all need to do ongoing, committed work on inclusion, hospitality, and truth-speaking, and the world outside the church desperately needs us to be places that do that work well. For starters, let’s help each other do it well.
As more local resources go online, we should embrace sharing the good news with neighbors connected digitally, and not discourage our pastors from ministry to “strangers who will never become pledgers.” Let’s work to be effective evangelists together -- including on-line.
Better yet, we should use our platforms to amplify the voices and perspectives of gifted leaders from very different contexts, recognizing how important this is for the Christian formation of each community, wherever it might be located.
Let’s model a broader and more loving vision of the beloved community whenever and however we gather, and support each other closely as we do.
Admittedly, this may involve giving up some of the ways of church as we know it.
Personally, I think that’s a blessing.
Some may disagree, and see the prospect of deep collaboration as a risky move -- something that their particular church would never go for, or couldn’t even if it wanted to.
Going forward, that needs to be part of the conversation.
However, let’s acknowledge that the conditions of our old ways of being and doing church have changed, and that we must respond.
In the Together as One proposal, I believe the Gospel is calling us to a remarkable time of rejuvenation and reconnection.
Inevitably, this means that many of us may have some real learning to do. But it seems increasingly clear that we can’t afford not to.
The risen Christ is waiting for us.
Let’s get moving.
The Rev. Max Grant is the senior pastor at Second Congregational Church of Greenwich
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