TLDR: Churches are formed by individuals who want to build vertical and horizontal relationships. When churches forget the vertical, they become social clubs only concerned with the horizontal.
“Healing comes from the telling and the retelling of the story.” This is a foundational principle of psychotherapy and a simple truth about human existence. We must become aware of the stories that are foundational to our human experience, and we must tell each other these stories. When an individual or a group forgets about the stories that give their existence meaning, and form their identity, they often become lost in the minutia of their own opinions, prejudices, and fears. This can happen rather easily in churches. When we forget the reason why we have come together as a body, we lose our way. Suddenly, we become parochial, small-minded, fixed in our ways, and overly concerned about having things our way, and our way only.
Let me remind you briefly about the reason why individuals join other individuals to create churches. We join because we want to build vertical and horizontal relationships. The vertical comes first: We gather to worship God in community. We have come to discern that to lead a wholistic life we need a holistic life. In other words, we need God in our lives. We need to worship someone who is greater than we are. We know that life is not so much about us and what we do for ourselves, but about God and what he has already done for us. So, we gather as a community to give thanks for our life, our relationships, our children, and the many blessings of our life. We also gather to learn more about God in his Son, Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world. We gather to learn the great narratives of salvation history, the plan God implemented at the very beginning of creation for the salvation of the world. We learn about that plan in Holy Scripture, discipleship classes, sermons, and our many conversations with other Christians. This vertical relationship is built through sacramental liturgy, prayer, and discipleship. This relationship is always trinitarian because we know that we are saved by God, through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross, and by the power of his Holy Spirit. We are whole-Bible, trinitarian, sacramental, and congregational Christians.
This last phrase introduces the second reason why people gather to create churches. We need to build horizontal relationships with other brothers and sisters who, like us, form the body of Christ on earth. We know that we were created in community, we are born into communities, we grow in communities, and we are called to create and join communities. No man or woman is an island. We are inter-dependent beings, and we need each other to become fully ourselves. A solitary existence is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. Even monks who chose a life of isolation, spend their entire lives praying for the world. We need others in the same way that others need us. Now, there is major difference between a church and a social club. Social clubs are composed of like-minded individuals brought together by a common cause or purpose: a particular activity (sports, social service, etc.) type of people (only boys, only girls, white people only, black people only, etc.) gender (women only, men only, both genders welcome, gender fluid, etc.) similar life circumstance (Alcoholic Anonymous, clergy children, Republicans, Democrats, etc.) A church, on the other hand, is a body of believers who are called to be inclusive, hospitable, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-age, etc. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27.)
When a church loses its way, and forgets the great narratives of our faith, they begin to see themselves more as a social club than as the body of Christ. We become nostalgic about the good old days (which in reality were not always that good,) we begin to think that what makes us great is the fact that we all look alike, behave in the same predictable ways, share the same visible signs of success, etc. In other words, churches that forget about the vertical become social clubs only preoccupied with the horizontal. I often hear churches describe themselves in the following way, “we are a small family that loves each other, and we want to stay that way.” I applaud the fact that a church is a small family, but families that don’t grow die out and become irrelevant. It is okay to be a small family, but it is not okay to close ourselves to the possibility of growth. Life in community requires growth in faith, in devotion, in numbers, in diversity, and in love.
I am very grateful that Saint Dunstan’s is a church with a profound vertical relationship with God. We have excellent liturgy, amazing music, various prayer groups, Bible studies, and many opportunities for spiritual growth. And I am also very glad that we have excellent horizontal relationships among each other. We are a bunch of people who love each other, and this type of love is very attractive to visitors and newcomers. I have heard a number of times how welcome people feel. This level of hospitality will grow the church and will make us more inclusive. I dream of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-gifted church where everyone will have a place, a purpose, and a ministry. I know this dream is ambitious and I know this picture is scary for some. Let me remind you that Saint Dunstan’s has been multi-ethnic from the very beginnings. The church has had American (both Black and White,) Palestinian, African, Hispanic, and Asian people in our congregation from the very beginning. Now, we will have a designated service in Spanish, not to substitute any existing service, but in addition to those services. This is a very exciting step towards becoming more inclusive. Thanks to the generosity of the Diocese and private donors, we are able to bring the dream of a Spanish service to reality.
Please call me directly if you have any concerns about the direction the Vestry wants me to take. I am doing exactly what the Vestry hired me to do, and I ask for your prayers and support to accomplish our ambitious goals.
Blessings to all,