Scriptures: Hebrews 13:1-3,5-7, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 14-17
Let us pray: O Lord, open our minds and hearts to hear the Spirit’s message; may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight. Amen.
When writing about congregational life in our contemporary North American United States, Gray Temple has some interesting observations arising from contemplation of today’s scripture from the book of Hebrews. He describes three characteristics often exhibited by congregations. The first one is a congregation that is inert. From physics, a congregation that is inert would be, by definition, much like gas: motionless, nonreactive, sluggish, unmotivated, or passive. The second kind of congregation could be characterized by contentiousness. This kind, perhaps, would show itself to be argumentative, controversial, quarrelsome, antagonistic, prickly, or creating disagreement.
Temple’s third kind of congregation is considered vital. Using the illustration in Hebrews chapter 13, Temple identifies three characteristics of a vital congregation. His first characteristic is worship. From verse 15, “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.” Temple identifies this as the “work of actually praising God and meaning it,” which proves over and over again to be transformative, changing us from the inside out. He goes on to illuminate, in his perspective, how it actually works:
“You come to resemble what you admire. People who admire money get green and crinkly. People who admire computers grow user-unfriendly. People who admire youth get juvenile. People who actively and deliberately admire Jesus Christ come to resemble him as he actually was and remains today, unchanged from age to age: generous, merry, tender, fierce, courageous, somewhat mischievous, fully open to others after his own self is sorted out. Real worship is the engine of personal transformation. Congregations that craft their worship out of love for Christ more than out of love of respectability are well on their way to kin-dom level vitality.”
Temple’s second element in becoming a vital congregation is fellowship, from the first verse in chapter 13: “Let mutual love continue.” As Temple observes,
“Souls that emerge from a worship service in which people actively admire and praise our Lord are in a somewhat fluid, molten state. The issue then is, how will my molten soul “set up”? Will I rush back into my normal routine, to be shaped once again by the world’s mold? Will I sit docilely in some class where a teacher or pastor tells me exactly what to believe and practice and exactly how to do it? That would be like pouring my molten soul into somebody else’s ice tray—and calling it “growth!” Far better to gaze around the coffee hour for eyes equally ablaze and forge relationships with them, letting my self–in–transformation be shaped in our mutual discovery of Jesus’ high adventure.”
Finally, Temple’s third element for vital congregations is ministry. This is key, because it denotes activity that is specifically focused with a known reason for doing it firmly in place. Temple notes, “The most robust ministries, both within and outside the church building, grow spontaneously out of the new relationships forged between worship-molten souls.”
Reviewing TempIe’s commentary, I wondered if it were possible to chart a course, of sorts, based on his rubric wherein worship melts the soul which then leads to deepened relationships with fellow servants of Christ. With an understanding that fellowship grows out of spirited worship, and ministry grows out of deepened relationships, would this orient a congregation toward more vitality? Would it also, I wonder, cause a more personal movement forward into courageous ministry outlets – perhaps even personal transformation? Congregational transformation? If so, then ministry is done by those who have undergone worship-forged friendships within the community of a church which inspires service in and to the world. Which of course leads me to a homework assignment for you and your Session: Which kind of congregation are you?
Let me offer some inspiration: Christine D. Pohl, author of the book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011) outlines four specific practices to encourage sustaining vitality within a worship community. These include:
- Embracing gratitude as a way of life
- Making and keeping promises
- Living truthfully, and
- Practicing hospitality
How do you know if your church is vital? How do you worship? How do you gather outside of worship? How do you live and move and have your being among one another and in your own individual lives? Most importantly, perhaps, do you invite others into the community to share what you have found that strengthens you for life’s journey in Jesus Christ? And how do you do that? As leadership continues to pray and put energy and vision into the next chapters of ministry for this church, I encouraged all of you to step up to the plate, knowing that the Presbytery stands by to assist you, should you ask; as well as most importantly, Christ is with you, among you, and walking with you every step of the way.
May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Gray Temple, “Theological Perspective, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16” in Feasting on the Word – Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).