The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (ELCA) our church affiliation, has been encouraging congregations to think about what it means to “be church together” in this day and age. There are many realities for this: cultural, economic, missional challenges in a varied and rapidly-changing world. And there is much justification for this: we are all one Body of Christ. That’s the ELCA’s understanding – three expressions of church: local congregations, the Synods, and what we call “church wide,” or the whole ELCA.
Our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, recently wrote an article addressing ways we separate ourselves as congregations, and speaking about the privilege we have to “be church together” in the larger expressions. In general, I like what she has to say. But I wonder, for small congregations like mine, with very limited resources, what does this mean? Limited resources mean limited attention and opportunities – and honestly, because it’s just simply human nature and not malicious – larger congregations who contribute larger pieces to the pie in participants, programs, and money seem to have more opportunity to “be church” in these larger expressions. In short, being smaller feels isolating. To play off Bishop Eaton’s “Team ELCA” theme, it feels like we’re stuck at the bottom of the depth chart, the minor leagues, the long end of the bench with no hope of getting in the game. Small congregations like mine aren’t stuck in the “what’s in it for me” mentality of “transactional Whoville church” as Bishop Eaton calls it, but rather, “how do I get in the game?”
That’s why I like this video the ELCA’s produced, called “We Are Church Together.” It’s 9 minutes long and definitely worth a watch. But the main point of it is that even us small congregations with limited resources, we have something to offer. We have gifts to bring to the table that communicate the love and grace of Jesus Christ to others. We have assets to share.
We try to push our thinking beyond traditional forms, things that go beyond putting a check in the plate or taking up a special offering for World Hunger or the Malaria Project in the ELCA. We look for opportunities beyond simply trying to push our financial benevolence number to the north by a couple hundred dollars or two every year. Don’t get me wrong, those things are important. Here are a few things these congregations are doing to be part of “Team ELCA:”
– Allowing their pastor (me) time to serve as a Navy Chaplain in the Reserves; supporting the larger ministry of ELCA Federal Chaplaincy, and to a community with a large military servicemember population.
– Making space for two seminarians to come and lead worship and share the gospel in Word for 4 weeks this summer while I am away at Navy Chaplaincy Training. This is two congregations supporting the development, growth, and formation of future leaders in the ELCA.
– Continuing to work with each other to form an urban partnership in the City of Portsmouth, sharing resources, ministry, and thus widening the witness of the greater church.
– In this formative work, hopefully providing a model for what it looks like to share a pastor in an urban/suburban setting when resources are limited and in a time when such a model might become a greater necessity and reality for the larger church.
– Focusing on becoming a better “player” by constantly reflecting and striving to live into their own expression of church – the local congregation – as God has called them in their time and place. More simply stated, focusing on “being church” rather than just “doing church things.”
– Striving to be a community where faith is a “participatory sport,” but not one where perfection is required, and not one preoccupied with “wins and losses.”
We don’t have a lot. We don’t always do it the best. And we do still ask from time to time, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the sinner in us. But the saint in us is still striving, and thinking in creative ways to being a small, yet key player, in Team ELCA. That’s our response to what God does for us in Christ always.
And whether you’re big or small – we in P-Town, VA offer blessings to all of you who are striving daily to “be church together” in this thing we’re calling Team ELCA.