Therefore encourage one another . . .. Live in peace with each other . . .. Encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
I Thessalonians 5: 11-14
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is the temperament of your congregation? By “temperament,” I mean a habitual mood, a pattern of acting, a spiritual default setting. Just as individuals have temperaments, so too do congregations. Congregations have lots of feelings running about in them and various people behave in various ways. But the group has a basic was of being. Individuals have a lot of feelings in any given day, sometimes several feelings at the same time. But the individual has a basic temperament. It is the same with a congregation.
Just as some individual temperaments are attractive and others not, the same is true of congregational temperaments. Just as the temperaments of some individuals make them healers or leaders or friends, the same is true of congregations. There are people we gravitate toward when we need consolation or inspiration. Other people we flee from like the plague when we are a bit fragile. So what is your congregation’s temperament?
Often people describe their Church as “a friendly, caring family.” Sociologists have actually studied churches that describe themselves that way. They are the hardest congregations to break into, the least likely to grow, and the most likely to be dysfunctional. I interpret that to mean congregations that deflect the question of “what is your temperament?” with a cliché are the least self-aware.
Nothing is more important to a congregation’s life than its temperament (mood, behavior, default setting). People will come to a congregation or run away lickety split for their own survival depending on the congregational temperament. It isn’t the cool clergy. It isn’t the programs. Those things may bring visitors. But membership decisions depend on the feel of the place. Whether the congregation lives out the gospel and shows Jesus to the world on the one hand or discredits the faith on the other depends on the congregational temperament.
Each congregation’s temperament is unique. It’s much more complicated than good or bad. I have known hopeful, generous congregations; resilient, determined, rock-ribbed congregations; and prayerful, contemplative, reflective congregations – to name a few on the upside. I have also known congregations beset with a spirit of crankiness; others inclined to obstreperousness, hysteria, panic-based blame-shifting, and any number of traits that repel rather than attract and do not bespeak faith, hope, and love.
The temperament of a congregation, over time, affects the personalities of the members. Cranky congregations do not so much attract cranks as breed them. Prayerful congregations instill prayer in their members. Serving others is a habit one can pick up at a servant ministry congregation. To belong to a congregation is to expose oneself to the risk of becoming like that congregation. That is why people choose their congregations carefully. And it is why many of the “nones” and “dones” today keep their distance. Sometimes they are avoiding the spiritual damage that congregations inflict all too often. See this Post Traumatic Church Syndrome Facebook page for an encounter with the wounded veterans of church life. It is an eye-opener. https://www.facebook.com/groups/PTCSgroup/
A lot goes into shaping a congregation’s temperament. History is a powerful influence. Each member is apt to bring to the congregation the patterns of feeling and behavior from his or her own family. The surrounding culture has an influence. But there are a few even stronger factors.
Clergy. The clergy do not singlehandedly set the tone of the congregation but they have more potential to influence the tone than anyone else. Yes, I know this is Nevada, we are anti-clerical, and we don’t have much use for I Thessalonians 5: 12-13, “Acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” But like it or not, if someone celebrates the sacraments, preaches the word, offers spiritual guidance, and extends pastoral care in our times of need, we are apt to catch a bit of their mood. The moral of this point is for clergy. It is good for you to know things, good for you to do the liturgy well, etc. But the most important thing is not what you do but how you do it. “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” I Corinthians 8: 1. “Be the change you want to see” in your congregation.
Covenant. Next, each congregation has a basic agreement on what they are here to do and how they are to do it. That agreement is usually implicit, unstated, and unconscious. It may be a good agreement or a bad agreement. But the very unconsciousness of it is a problem. It is so, so, so profoundly important for a congregation to intentionally reflect on “what we are about” periodically. The transition process as a parish prepares to call a new priest is, for many congregations, the only time they ever do the congregational equivalent of an “examination of conscience.” (St. Ignatius of Loyola) Some resist self-examination even then. When there are long rectorates or where the ministry model does not involve calling priests from outside the congregation, the result is that some congregations rarely check their spiritual blood pressure. If an annual check up is in order for our physical bodies and a daily check up is in order for individual souls, a congregation that has gone five years without some serious reflection is on thin ice. We need to be clear on what we are here to do and how God has empowered us to do it.
Individual. Each individual member of a congregation makes a contribution to the spirit of the group. The look on your face, the tone of your voice, the words you choose, your willingness of set aside your own agenda – or not – all nudge the congregational temperament one way or another. To participate in a congregation is a spiritual discipline. At weddings, we often read Paul’s Hymn to Love (I Corinthians 13). I encourage you to read back over it now but first remember that blessed Paul is not talking about how to live in a marriage. He’s talking about how to live in a congregation!!
Now here’s a little liturgical hint. Our clergy are appropriately focused on how we do the rituals. One part of the ritual that some of them get exercised about is the Exchange of the Peace. Their concern is that some congregations treat it as an occasion for socializing. The purpose of the ritual is a bit different.
Now let me be clear. I have no dog in this fight. There are perfectly good arguments on both sides. But the clergy are right that we should not miss the point of the ritual. It is from Matthew 5: 23, which says if you are about to present your gift at the altar (which at that point in the service we are), and we recall that there is some grievance between ourselves and someone else, we should go first to that person and set the grievance aside. In the ritual, we have just received absolution, just been forgiven for our sins. Jesus is emphatic that those who have been forgiven are obliged to forgive each other. Matthew 18: 23-35. We who have just been forgiven forgive each other in the Exchange of the Peace. We may or may not like the person we are exchanging the peace with -- but it doesn’t matter. Ritually we represent each other’s worst enemies. Ritually, we are laying down our grudges in order to purify our hearts before placing them on the altar of God at the next step in the liturgy, the offertory.
Now what does that have to do with how individual church members contribute to the congregational temperament? Just this: The Exchange of the Peace is not just the 7th Inning Stretch. It’s a spiritual exercise, one of many. The Church is a spiritual gymnasium. Clergy, spiritual directors, etc. are like trainers. We are there to work out. The Church is a place to practice (as in to do it over and over until we get it right) certain virtues.
How should we behave in Church life if we want to grow into the likeness of Christ?[i] Short but demanding answer: read the New Testament. Every page is about the answer. But Paul says it most clearly and most directly. It was the subject of most of his Epistles starting with the first one. He said:
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up . . ..
Warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Be sure
that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – I Thessalonians 5: 11-16
Does that sound like a tall order? It is. Impossibly so. That is why we need each other to do any part of it. Even then, it is an aspiration. “Ah but (our) reach should exceed (our) grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning.
I love to see self-aware congregations growing in grace through the hard discipline of being the Body of Christ together. I love it when people get past wanting the Church to suit their taste or give them their way because they have discovered there is a gospel to proclaim and there is a Kingdom Mission to accomplish.
If we are honest about the temperament of our congregation, we will probably find some grace and mercy there. I have never known a Christian congregation that was not the receptacle of some blessing. We will also probably find some traits that fall short of the glory of God. There is a cure for those failings. It is the gospel of Jesus lived out in the Biblical way. For example,
If anyone is caught in a transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness . . .. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6: 1-2.
Over the years I have read many a book and gone to many a workshop on group processes and how to be a healthy, dynamic, life-giving congregation as opposed to (shall we say to be charitable) the other kind. After all that reading and study, I have stumbled upon the best guide yet: the New Testament. If we read, mark, and (most importantly) inwardly digest God’s word to us, it will change how we are with each other in Church, which will change how we are with each other outside Church, which will change who we are inside.
[i] Christification, growing into the fullness of Christ, is actually the point of this whole Christian project. Ephesians 4: 13. It’s about who we become over the course of eternity, not the temperature setting on our room in the afterlife.