Why do congregations exist?

by Peyton G. Craighill

Why do congregations exist? In America, the members of congregations generally assume their congregations exist primarily to put on worship services on Sunday. And the success of the congregations is measured in terms of how many worshipers they are able to attract on Sundays. They also assume that their power to attract and hold members depends on their ability to produce programs that meet the spiritual and social needs of their members. The most successful congregations are those with the most attractive power.

The problem with these assumptions is that they ignore why God created – and continues to create – congregations. The Church came into being when God sent his Son into the world to live, die, and rise again for that world, and Christ commissioned his followers jan_luykens_jesus_20-_the_apostles_sent_out-_phillip_medhurst_collectionto spread the Good News of God’s love and justice through word and action “into all the world”! The Church exists not primarily to attract people into congregations but to send people out to share with God in his mission in all areas of their daily life. When we were baptized into Christ, he commissioned us all to participate with him in his mission, Monday through Sunday.

The paradigm shift from an attractional to a sending model of congregational ministry calls for a major reconsideration of every aspect of church life – worship, formation, community, and service. Mission is no longer on the periphery of church life. Mission is why congregations exist! Parish programs need to be rethought in terms not only of the corporate life of congregations, but also in terms of how they inspire, guide, and support each member in his or her missions in all areas of daily life – home, work, leisure, community, church, and the wider world.

In regard to the missional church movement in the Episcopal Church, what sets our approach apart from other Churches, is our emphasis on baptism and the baptismal covenant. As Christ’s mission began with his baptism, so too our mission, shared with Christ, begins with our baptism! In particular, the nine commitments we make in the Baptismal Covenant provide us with invaluable inspiration and guidance for our missions in Christ in our daily lives.

We recognize of course, that, in mission-oriented congregations, attraction remains an important part of our ministry. Unless congregations attract members in, there will be no missionaries to send out. But attraction is subordinated to sending. Indeed, the best way to attract people into congregations is when those congregations inspire and support all their members to live out their faith in their everyday lives.

What is a successful congregation?

by Peyton G. Craighill

Thoughtful church leaders know that something is wrong with our congregations. The problem lies with the our definition of a successful congregation. The widespread assumption is that two features mark success in a congregation:

  1. A full church on Sunday morning.
  2. Offering plates with sufficient funds to support an effective church program.

According to our secular standards, this definition implies a good business plan for a congregation.

But this definition does not indicate why God established and continues to give life and power to our congregations. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to proclaim Good News. Christ established his servant community, the church, to help him with his mission of love and justice in “all the world.” Through our baptism, we become grafted into Christ’s Body, the church. We accept his Great Commission to share in his mission with him, Monday through Sunday, in everything we do in our everyday lives.

Based on this paradigm shift,  our congregations are changed from “spiritual filling stations” on Sunday morning to “base camps” for mission, Monday through Sunday. How do we get our members to accept this new meaning of church life?

The first step is that you and I must live out our baptismal covenant – in particular, the five promises that we make at the end of the covenant – in every decision we make and every action we take in all of our daily life activities. We have to let Christ transform us from “me-centered” to “Christ-through-me-centered” lives. That change in vision is essential to influencing our congregations to accept a missional approach  instead of an attractional approach to defining success in our congregations.

What is a successful congregation?

by Peyton G. Craighill

The answer to that question is clear. A successful congregation is:

  • On Sunday morning, a full church,
  • And at the end of the fiscal year, a balanced budget.

Any rector or senior warden knows that. It makes perfect business sense.

The only trouble with that answer is that it is not Christ’s answer. Why does Christ establish congregations? The answer to that question is also equally clear.

Christ’s purpose is to help him to fulfill his Great Commission that his Heavenly Father gave to him through his birth at Christmas, reinforced through his baptism in the Jordan River. After Christ’s Ascension, he was present on earth primarily through his Body, the Church. That means every one of us that shares with him in his baptism shares with him also in that Great Commission — to live out in our daily lives the Good News of the power of Christ’s love, justice, and peace.

The first answer is focused on attraction; the second on sending. The first answer says come; the second answer says go!