Chapter 1: The Thick Gathering

Congregation: Stories and Structures
by James F. Hopewell

Chapter 1: The Thick Gathering

Christian congregations took me by surprise. Although I had always been associated with local churches, my curiosity about them came late and unexpectedly while I was engaged with what seemed a quite different set of professional concerns. Twenty years of overseas missionary and ecumenical service had drawn my interest, first, to the traditional and Muslim faiths of Africa and, later, to the religions of Asia. I now teach about these religions in a seminary lodged in a university.

But something happened while I was pursuing religions on the other side of the world. Like Columbus in his search, I encountered an intervening territory that possessed its own riches and fascination. Of course, like Columbus, I was not this area’s original occupant. Christian congregations have attracted many investigators in recent years. I venture to add one more volume to the already lengthy list of books and articles about the local church because I think I see from my eccentric angle some aspects of the congregation that may make it for others the surprising new world that it has become for me.

Part of my recent wonder about local churches grows from my need as a professor of world religions to demonstrate how my courses meet concerns in the ministry that my students will enter. The close attention to such parish features as ritual process and the use of Scripture encouraged in my courses does indeed help forge links to other religions, but studying the congregation because it provides a rationale for courses in other faiths remains only a part of the reason for my interest. What proves more tantalizing are the ways in which the study of other religions gives me fresh access to the nature of congregations, enabling me to glimpse better how local churches particularize their religious behavior and concretely express the faith. A congregation, undeniably Christian, nevertheless uses forms and stories common to a larger world treasury to create its own local religion of outlooks, action patterns, and values. I have begun to see how astonishingly thick and meaning-laden is the actual life of a single local church. Ministry in even a small church occurs in a much more abundant world of signals and images than I and, I suspect, many others had assumed.

My interest in exploring the thick culture of local churches was first prompted by an unsettling experience. Beginning in 1975, a new congregation grew up around me. A group of Episcopal laity and I as their priest set out to form a loose fellowship that would meet for Communion each Sunday to supplement our participation in the community’s existing churches, none of which was Episcopal. Because of my university commitments I could give very little time to the group; in fact, I took great interest in keeping its activity as simple as legitimately possible. My behavior could be used by church growth advocates as a case study of unpromising leadership. I was unaggressive and nonauthoritative; I was more interested in intimacy than expansion; I avoided ecclesiastical trappings and tried to promote service to the neighborhood instead of the internal activities of an organized church.

To our first Eucharist, held in a bank, I brought the bare minimum: bread and wine, prayer books, and a card table. On the second Sunday, however, someone brought a cloth to cover the table. The following Sunday another person produced a cross and candlesticks, and at our fourth gathering still another announced that the women of our church would meet the following Thursday to plan the bazaar. Despite my style, our fellowship became a congregation. Within a few years it constructed its own building, grew to full parish status, called its own rector, and burned its mortgage.

What caused its growth? God gave the increase, but God used other means than its first ordained leader for its planting and watering. As the four years of my tenancy passed, I learned to appreciate the capacity of an ordinary group of Christians to bring to maturity a unique and vibrant congregation. That this culture developed, convoluted, and achieved a church around my passive if permissive leadership more and more intrigued me. Most of what constructed our congregation did not occur by deliberate planning or goal setting; rather, a particular language developed among the members, an idiom that came to bind their actions and perspectives. Though its terms were drawn from the vast world repertoire of religious and social imagination, they were particularized in a local language that expressed our own views, values, and actions. Together we wove a network of audible and physical signs that, informed by humanity’s symbolic struggles for community, now shaped our own. What was the grammar, I began to ask, of the new language that the members of this congregation seemed to create? What images and twists of phrase constituted their common communication? How did their common structures build them into a household of God?

Questions such as these began to nag me. It was fairly easy to identify elements in our local idiom derived from Christian and denominational sources, but much of what we expressed and meant to each other had other origins. I was struck by the resemblances between our growing church and bonding features I had earlier seen in African villages: the critical importance of narrative, a coalescence of world view, the link of myth and ethos. Could it be that here in suburban America there grew around me a church that partook of powerful religious forms that I had previously associated only with another continent?

At the next opportunity, a year’s sabbatical, I set out to pursue these questions. What I did on that sabbatical was to observe two ordinary congregations, both long established in the same town in which my Episcopal congregation had sprung up. By sitting sympathetically through a year’s worth of meetings, conflicts, services, and conversations, I sought to determine what their participants were saying to each other, what meanings they were sharing, what drama they as actors were together unfolding. By year’s end I was convinced that parish life, in these two local churches as much as in my own, was a rich and multilayered transaction that seldom got the description it deserved. The life of each was like a fascinating tapestry woven with distinctive values and outlooks and behaviors, each telling its own pattern.

I do not think these churches each had by chance an unusually rich character that oozed meaning. An abundant system of language and significance seems to come with any congregation, whether growing or declining, be it as flashy as the Crystal Cathedral or as lukewarm as Laodicea. At the end of the year I concluded that a group of people cannot regularly gather for what they feel to be religious purposes without developing a complex network of signals and symbols and conventions -- in short, a subculture -- that gains its own logic and then functions in a way peculiar to that group. That conclusion changed the course of my research and my career. My explorations along this new path, leading, I hope, to insight into the structures of expression in local churches, form the body of this book.


What struck me first and most forcefully in these three churches -- the one I led and the two others I studied -- was the surprisingly rich idiom unique to each. As slight and predictable as the language of a congregation might seem on casual inspection, it actually reflects a complex process of human imagination. Each is a negotiation of metaphors, a field of tales and histories and meanings that identify its life, its world, and God. Word, gesture, and artifact form a local language -- a system of construable signs that Clifford Geertz, following Weber, calls a "web of significance"2 -- that distinguishes a congregation from others around it or like it. Even a plain church on a pale day catches one in a deep current of narrative interpretation and representation by which people give sense and order to their lives. Most of this creative stream is unconscious and involuntary, drawing in part upon images lodged long ago in the human struggle for meaning. Thus a congregation is held together by much more than creeds,3 governing structures, and programs. At a deeper level, it is implicated in the symbols and signals of the world, gathering and grounding them in the congregation’s own idiom.

Most of us can recall several quite distinct manifestations of parish idiom. A pastor moving from one charge to another encounters strikingly different expressions of value and style in the new church. To communicate effectively within the new congregation the pastor must master its particular language. Moreover, potential church members, like househunters, do not find a wide range of acceptable habitations in a new town. They may search diligently before discovering a congregation that catches the intonations of their own language. Some give up the search and stay home. It is not that the churches they rejected were not reasonably pleasant and worshipful, and it is not, as hyperactive help books on the market assert, that better or different programs would necessarily lure them in. In hunting for a church, Christians are not only buying a product that must be attractively presented, they are also testing their own symbolic expression against that of the prospective church. Silently they ask of the congregation: What does this place say about us? What does it signify about our values and the way we see the world?

For both pastor and laity, entry into a new church is only the beginning of the encounter with its idiom. Parish communication constitutes virtually every parish event. Conflicts of any duration usually arise from different interpretations of parish idiom. Parents and education committees perennially worry about how the young are to learn the church’s language. Each week teachers struggle to relate standard curriculum materials to the information that the congregation’s members already convey to each other. Members of boards and committees map out campaigns and policies along lines of discourse that function to gather the congregation. The youth group strives to entertain the church’s sense of the absurd in its skit at the next parish supper. A recovered invalid chooses to express thanks to a helpful congregation in a manner authentic to its nature. The pastor spends much of the week weighing words -- phrases in prayers, terms in appeals, points in sermons -- so that they sink into the communicated stuff of parish idiom.

Later chapters will explore ways of analyzing the expressive nature of the congregation: how it views itself and the world, how it behaves symbolically, and how it communicates its character. To start, however, I want to call attention to examples of signals and symbols in parish idiom, the first feature of congregational expression to attract my own attention. So accustomed are all of us to conceive the church as an assortment of either consciously planned programs or irrational religious feelings that illustrations of symbolic interaction are necessary to warm us to the notion that congregations have cultures as well as activities, policies, and emotions.

Consider the church in which it has been the practice of the members to leave abruptly after the worship service. Appeals to conscience ("We are depending on you to help create a time of fellowship after church") or a planned program to attract after-church participation are unlikely to change the habits of most members. But suppose changes are made in the symbolic code by which worshipers may remain comfortably in each other’s presence after service, perhaps by giving each a doughnut. Neither provided nor consumed for the sake of nutrition, the after-worship doughnut (and the manner of its provision and eating) is, rather, intended as new bit of idiom that influences the tone, timing, and identity of life together. A doughnut might seem a strange example of congregational language, but it is a signal that conveys a message significant to the corporate life of the congregation. A congregation knows its specific meaning, which is an invitation to linger good-naturedly. Substances that express such messages, many only locally understood, are part of a congregation’s idiom.

Most available substances do not have idiomatic implications. To offer glasses of water in the church foyer after worship would cause bewilderment, as would the distribution of gum or grits. "What’s this for?" worshipers would ask, uncertain of the intended meaning. Some substances, nevertheless, as well as some sounds, gestures, and marks -- and even some smells such as sanctuary musk and kitchen spices -- do serve as signals within a congregation, which by the convention of its idiom understands each to stand for something else. Both universal and home-grown signals, their combinations, and the rules regarding their significance form the idiom of the local church. As many testify, idiom differs from congregation to congregation, subtly but insistently presenting in each its own character.4 Each idiom is a wondrously complex language, largely built of written and spoken words and phrases, but also including matter as tangible as doughnuts and mute as handshakes and pouts. Together the signals make up the idiomatic code by which a congregation communicates itself, enabling it to identify and integrate itself, to express its faith and love, to govern and sometimes to change its corporate behavior.

Within congregational idiom are special signs called symbols. We shall use "symbol" to refer to a signal that commands markedly higher recognition and respect from members as an element essential to parish life. As an East Coast pastor recently discovered, symbols are not tampered with:

It was the damndest thing. I preach unorthodox, even heretical sermons fairly often, and, three years ago, the board took the results of the sale of some property, over a million dollars, and set the proceeds aside . . . for the meeting of human need in this city. There’s never a peep about the preaching, nor a single complaint about that dramatic action on the part of the board. But when we said that we wanted to move the pulpit a couple of meters to the left and the lectern just a couple to the right, there was a . . . storm, and that is not too strong a term.

An arrangement of sanctuary furniture for this congregation proved to be more inviolable than either its budget or its sermons.

Symbols differ from signals like doughnuts in another way: the meaning of the symbol is markedly less specific. Even young children know what after-worship doughnuts mean, but probably no member in the East Coast church, no matter how irate, could explain what the sanctuary arrangement precisely meant. That "multivocality," in Victor Turner’s phrase, is in the nature of the symbol.5 Members fight for its significance but cannot agree upon a single particular referent. Thus the meaning of a symbol is not easy to grasp because it abounds in meanings that touch many parts of a parish identity.6 The transformative power of symbols resides in the abundance of meanings stored in them,7 so members are quick to champion, but slow to explain, the symbols of their identity.

What an observer of parish symbols soon discovers is that a large portion of them are not specifically Christian in nature. Both signals and symbols in congregational idiom can arise from any source in the experience of the congregation’s members. Money is such a powerful, not specifically Christian, symbol. Though the disposal of a million dollars did not seem very significant to the East Coast church, money is frequently an emotion-laden metaphor that both expresses and provokes the identity of a particular congregation. Different local churches use the symbol in different ways. One parish develops an elaborate system for hiding its display, issuing awkward campaign letters that barely mention the subject, publishing no budget, and treating the Sunday offering as an embarrassing moment to be quickly concluded. But in another church, just down the road, the subject of money comes up in most conversations. There it functions as a potent expression of superabundance and fertility. Yet another church close by treats money as a principal adversary, waging a symbolic and sometimes ingenious guerrilla war against its power to dominate. And a fourth congregation in the vicinity uses the topic of its financial difficulties primarily to voice its disappointment with a world that, through changing population patterns in the neighborhood, seems to have drained that church of its membership and power.

Jesus’ insouciance toward money, taking it from the mouth of a fish, typifies the idiom of none of these congregations. Their seriousness about money comes from other sources. Such parentage does not mean that the ways they treat money are therefore sub-Christian, but rather that a household of God draws its idiom from its complex heritage of Christian and non-Christian sources.

Another world symbol in congregational idiom is children, also an emotion-laden metaphor. Different churches treat their children in different symbolic ways. One secretes them in soundproof rooms and becomes uncomfortable if too many appear in the sanctuary. A neighboring congregation, expressing its fecundity, arranges the public display of its children at worship. Another church close by devises creative campaign strategies to attract more young people and families with children, while yet another acknowledges the absence of children as it grieves its own aging.

As described here, there are similarities between the symbolic operations related to money and children. It is not the case, however, that a given congregation’s idiom would express a similar action or attitude in each matter. A congregation may flaunt its money and hide its children. The distinctive idiom of a church rests on such permutations of many symbols and signs. Its language is constructed from key verbal phrases, furnishings, rituals of conflict and conciliation, displays of technical competence, ways of showing care and worth, and much more. Given the variety of options available within any of the categories, it is easy to see that the idiom of any single church is necessarily distinct.

The local church suffers when it does not take its idiom seriously. If the congregation views itself as merely the repository of meanings better expressed elsewhere, it fails to appreciate its genius, its microcosmic capacity to reflect in uniquely lived form the sociality of humankind. When a congregation considers its own language neither interesting nor important it devalues its identity and thus its names for and before God.

Exploring Congregations

There are three further reasons why I and other students of congregational life invite a wider probe of the idiomatic local expression of church life. The first is that the image that many members now possess of their parish tends to embarrass them, and I believe that a deeper understanding would enable their greater appreciation of their congregation’s value and potential faithfulness. Second, a more acute sensitivity to a congregation’s idiom should increase the facility with which the gospel is proclaimed and heard in its midst. And, third, a perception of how the parish uses the cultural forms of other human communities should deepen its consciousness of its solidarity with peoples throughout the world in their mutual search for shalom. Each of these reasons requires more extended discussion.

1. Seeing beyond the embarrassment. Observers of congregational life today are more often chagrined than impressed: too often congregations deviate substantially from ideal concepts of Christian community. The charge of hypocrisy is made more frequently against church members than any other group of Americans. The contemporary local church, despite occasional enthusiastic advertisements and placid self-descriptions in annual reports, is often discouraged and sometimes cynical about ties that bind its members. An educated congregation these days knows more sociological and psychological explanations for its collective behavior than it dares, in its embarrassment, to apply. Moreover, the instances in which parish culture and structure are most evident usually hold bad news. As long as a congregation seems to surmount its problems of social interaction, it is easy to forget its congregational aspects and to view its members as free agents who spontaneously collaborate to practice high Christian precepts. When trouble strikes, however, the residual, structured, idiomatic household image of the parish becomes starkly visible.

Take a case in which church teenagers are caught using marijuana at a youth group party. The alarm system of the congregational household immediately alerts its members. Angry parents and others spread the signal. Their anxiety about the world of drugs turns to outrage when pot invades their corporate precincts. They may summon credal and biblical support as ammunition to defend their position, but their basic defense guards a more primal symbolic integrity. They raise questions about cultural identity: Who do they think we are? They recognize intrinsic values: Where do we stand? Where do we draw the line? Members also devise symbolic strategies: they formulate house rules to outlaw the behavior and adopt catchwords to belittle its perpetrators. The pastor plans a severe talk to the teenagers. Throughout the trouble the structure of the congregational household is painfully manifest to its members. They test and voice its boundaries. They employ its systems of value and communication. They display its purpose, and they use its resources to accomplish that goal. The pastor, prepared, does indeed talk to the adolescents, and several never return to the house.

What the congregation senses in the marijuana incident to be its own structure is doubly disappointing. Its culture first becomes clear to its members in a trying crisis and is, as usual, associated with social predicament. When revealed, furthermore, the form and character of their household appears all too common. Household actions are homely, made from human stuff. In their bout with marijuana, members use vulgar weapons -- gossip, pressure, threat -- to fight in defense of their house. They are also puzzled by the fact that their culture at least tacitly gives access to a drug and then expels its users. Neither feature seems Christian, and life in the congregation appears all too human, cramped, and predictable.

A common response to social crises like the marijuana incident is to look more to what the local church should be than to whatever in fact it is. Congregations that respond in this way often succeed in convincing themselves that the church is invisible or, at least, different from its local manifestation. Aided by judicatory and seminary personnel to whom the congregation seems more beneficiary than source of Christian praxis, local churches usually assume that a more definitive form of church life exists somewhere else. I gain the impression from some denominational meetings and seminary lectures that the real church can be located just outside the network of concrete parishes and might well function better without them. Caught themselves in their embarrassing finitude, local churches are also relieved to hear that superior church life occurs somewhere else.

But the thick gathering that constitutes congregational life is more substantial than is usually acknowledged. As I discovered in my early studies, the local church is a microcosm of human culture, an immediate instance of the world’s symbolic imagination. Its specific disappointments and predictable sins are real, but they are also the lot of humanity caught everywhere in a story of accomplishment and failure, of devotion and disobedience. Itself a potent example of the ambiguity of human association, the congregation nevertheless dares to accept its designation as the body of Christ and the household of God, proclaiming in its acceptance the incarnate nature of its God who took on servant form. The thick gathering of the congregation is much more than a hypocritical assembly; it is for Christians the immediate outworking of human community redeemed by Christ.

2. Hearing and proclaiming the gospel. Disappointed by the homely behavior of the local church and embarrassed by its parochialism, church leaders have launched major schemes, especially in the last quarter century, to convert the congregation into a fundamentally different sort of community. We have tried to turn the church around or inside out; we have introduced new programs and planning devices; we have sought the missionary structure of the congregation and plotted its numerical growth. The results have usually been disappointing. The reported size of the average non-Roman Catholic congregation in the United States in 1970 was 273 members; in 1980, 274.8 Despite massive deliberation and effort throughout the nation, the basic shape, size, and character of the local church remain essentially unchanged. Its worship may be more varied today than it was in earlier decades, and its leadership may now be more representative of its members as a whole, but the fundamental patterns of congregational culture that most of us encountered as children will probably cloak our aging and burial.

An analysis of both local congregational idiom and the way the gospel message confronts and yet is conveyed by that language would be a better starting point for efforts to assist the local church. Rather than assume that the primary task of ministry is to alter the congregation, church leaders should make a prior commitment to understand the given nature of the object they propose to improve. Many strategies for operating upon local churches are uninformed about the cultural constitution of the parish; many schemes are themselves exponents of the culture they fancy they overcome. For several centuries the gatherings of the dominant class in American society, white Anglo-Saxon churches have tended to assume that they themselves have no cultural particularity and therefore no reason to investigate their own ethos, tradition, and world view. These features were attributed to "ethnic" groups; the dominant white Protestant churches considered themselves beyond ethnicity, responsive primarily to universal precepts and revelation. Only recently has their cultural specificity been recognized.

To ponder seriously the finite culture of one’s own church, given the promise of God’s redemptive presence within it, opens up a vast hermeneutical undertaking. The congregation recedes as primarily a structure to be altered and emerges as a structure of social communication within which God’s work in some ways already occurs. The hermeneutical task is not merely the mining of biblical revelation in ways meaningful to individuals. It is more basically the tuning of the complex discourse of a congregation so that the gospel sounds within the message of its many voices.

3. Solidarity with the world. The congregation is a specific and available instance of human society expressed in symbolic activities that grasp society’s plight and hope. That is the basis for calling it God’s household. The local church is specific, with commonplace boundaries that prevent flights into generalities about the church, humanity, and the nature of the redeemed life. The congregation is also available, present to all for entry and inquiry; one need not seek some more remote or less obvious ecclesial home. The local church is, further, because it speaks an idiom of human language, an instance of human society that distinguishes itself from many other kinds of societies by the high proportion of language it spends on struggle and grace. The plight and the hope of the world are not entirely concealed in other forms of social grouping, but the idiom of the congregational household often expresses for Christians most persistently and poignantly God’s call and the human cry.

Servants belong to households. When Christ emptied himself, he took the form not only of a servant but also of the household that bound his servanthood. That house was at once the oikoumenê, the whole inhabited world, and all local households, all homely, and all served by the house servant Christ in their limited but imaginative form. Thus careful attention to a congregation’s domestic idiom yields a healthier self-image and a clearer sense of the gospel’s intonations in that congregation’s midst, but most important, a means of solidarity with the struggle of all human groups for survival and meaning, no matter how distant and strange the settings in which they are housed.

Characteristics of the Congregation

Before we elaborate the modes of congregational idiom and the narrative forms they assume, a task that will occupy all the subsequent chapters of this book, we must dispatch two preliminary matters: a definition of the congregation as one among several forms of religious association and some comments on the relation of the congregational form to specifically Christian witness and mission, a discussion that forms the last section of this chapter.

Common as they are in several religious traditions, congregations have never dominated the totality of the world’s local religious organizations. Human groups more frequently express their faith through corporate forms other than the congregation. Interwoven with familial, civic, devotional, and secular configurations that are structurally different from the local church, other religious groupings offer alternative patterns of collective reverence and incidentally suggest other ways by which Christianity might conceivably have spread among peoples. The congregation is not as inevitable as church members might assume. To study the congregation in any detail requires more precision about the way it differs from other pious gatherings.

My working definition of the congregation is this: A congregation is a group that possesses a special name and recognized members who assemble regularly to celebrate a more universally practiced worship but who communicate with each other sufficiently to develop intrinsic patterns of conduct, outlook, and story.9 We can sharpen our appreciation of congregational structure by comparing its thick culture with that of other religious associations.

One pervasive form of pious gathering occurs within the family. Whether the family is nuclear or extended, a twosome or a tribe, its propensities for reverence and ritual often express a religious process that relates home-grown myths, honors domestic symbols, and follows devotional sequences that intensify faith in that family and allegiance to its own images of ultimacy. While such piety might seem more evident among people who live in clans and who honor ancestors, it also characterizes family reverence in societies such as our own.10 Consider the motivation of the crowds that attend Christmas and Easter services in any local church. The absentees who appear on those occasions probably are present to acknowledge less the calendar of the church than their family’s own cycle of birth, childhood, life, and death. Out of loyalty to their folk they participate in events that briefly synchronize the pageantry of the Christian year with the consuming drama of kinship. To scold Christmas and Easter crowds as lapsed Christians may miss the point: that they are loyal family members performing their household rites of affinity.

A congregation differs from a family at prayer. The local church bears a distinctive name to indicate, even in eases where one family rules the parish, that the congregation is not synonymous with a particular bond of flesh. It is called St. Paul’s or Newtown Church, not often Smith Church even if the Smiths dominate the congregation. Moreover, the congregation identifies its own membership, initiating its catechumens rather than taking for granted their incorporation by reason of blood. The flesh and blood the congregation celebrates are not therefore those of a family but those of a universal Lord whose worship transcends the local church to embrace all assemblies that call themselves Christian.

Political units such as towns and nations exercise their own forms of collective piety. Ceremonies such as Memorial Day celebrations11 and certain sporting events12 express a corporate devotion to civic hopes and ideals. Again aggregates of people collaborate to recall mythic memories, to symbolize present accomplishment, and to project a final triumph often wrought from great peril. Robert Bellah has demonstrated how even a supposedly secular nation manifests a civil religion that provides for most American communities a powerful amalgam of Christian and patriotic images and values.13

Though congregations may be closely identified with specific political units, as were parishes in medieval Europe, local churches nevertheless resist total identification with their secular magistracy. Congregational sacraments, though they may support civic intentions, are rarely subsumed within civic observances. Even those who automatically are members of state churches undergo baptism and thereafter participate to varied degrees in the distinctive life of local churches. Such local groups are often deeply implicated in the piety of the state, but nonetheless each congregation retains a culture distinguishable from the pattern of the civil religion.

In Asia one encounters two other forms of religious assembly that are, again, structurally different from the congregation. One is the type of corporate observance that occurs within the precincts of temples, shrines, and other holy places. In these settings a small corps of priests or other functionaries, or perhaps a single religious leader, provides ceremonial proficiency and continuity for a larger lay populace whose participation, while not casual, tends to be more occasional and informal than the ordered activity of church attendance. Pilgrims and local devotees seldom attend regular services or expect to take their places in a fixed lay community. Most worshipers at a shrine on a single day do not communicate sufficiently with each other to develop the unique pattern of conduct, outlook, and story that distinguishes the local congregation.

A similar amorphism of the attendant community accompanies another form of religious gathering prevalent in East and Southeast Asia. Here the lay followers of the Buddhist monastic order, the Samgha, may gather in groups to perform meritorious rituals of devotion at the monastery, but their participation is individual and limited, unlike that of the congregation of monks whose corporate life they support.

As these illustrations suggest, congregations are only one of several sorts of collectivities by which human beings corporately express their religion. In Christianity, however, the congregation is the primary community by which the faith is expressed and perpetuated. Though organized into larger ecclesial units such as dioceses, denominations, and, ultimately, the worldwide church, the congregation is nevertheless the persistent and immediate form by which the church is manifested in almost every community. When people join the church or are ordained for ministry in the church, they almost invariably enter the culture of a specific congregation whose conduct, outlook, and story will occupy most of what their church membership entails.

How Congregations May Be Christian

So closely do local churches accompany the growth and perpetuation of Christianity that their structure may seem an apostolic invention, but the followers of Jesus founded only particular churches, not the pattern of the congregation itself. The apostles, in fact, grew up in congregations. For several centuries before it came to characterize Christian assembly, a congregational form of organization shaped the local gatherings of both Judaism and some Mediterranean mystery religions. This older pattern of pious community was adopted by early Christians to support and express their newfound faith. From its beginning the Christian church used social forms already common to other human groups.

The congregating of a contemporary Protestant parish reflects its complex parentage. Although it honors Christian precepts, it also inherits many other social codes that help it cohere and survive. Some of its structures and practices have obvious origins in Christian traditions; others, equally widespread and apparently necessary to Christian congregational identity, have murkier sources or explicitly secular ones. No congregation is a "pure gospel" church, composed solely of inarguably Christian practices; no living church escapes the contribution that a wider culture makes to its nature and continuing history.

This complex heritage may be evaluated from several different perspectives. One might consider much of what appears to be unidentifiably Christian as mere baggage, the social impediments that must travel along with the activity of recognizable devotion so that the church can persist through the many moments and circumstances each week during which members are not engaged in specific witness to their Christian faith. From this perspective one might be willing to tolerate large investments of parish energy in events whose sanctity is obscure, because they are functions needed to escort more obviously Christian practices. Fairs, elections, and building plans, for example, can be seen as the necessary but finally indifferent stuff the congregation creates to convey through time and space a more distinctively Christian ministry.

A quite different viewpoint, which I have already advocated, considers the total mix of parish life as the primary opportunity for members to see close at hand the struggle of human society through which the gospel is proclaimed. Instead of dividing the complex activity of a congregation into categories of sacred behavior and secular baggage, this approach sees God’s meaning as fully available only to members who perceive the entirety of social links that make their group whole. The worldwide toil to knit a human community out of disparate motives and symbols occurs in specific instance in the local church; the congregation, as was earlier suggested, is an immediate microcosm of all society’s attempts to associate.

In this view, the depiction of the congregation is more appropriately Paul’s image of the household than his metaphor of an earthen vessel holding separate treasure. The household is both container and treasure. The household works to coalesce its separate parts, like a congregation striving to incorporate various social forces and histories, like a world struggling to reconcile its different classes and peoples. A congregation’s appreciation of its own labor of embodiment, its recognition of its own attempt to fuse its many actions, can also, as I have said, deepen its sense of commonality with efforts of human societies throughout the world to gain their own shalom.

How a congregation views its institutional actions, moreover, is inextricably linked to its understanding of mission. One pastor, concerned about parish mission, notes that on the same day, her congregation celebrates Communion, fights over its music program, and fixes its plumbing. Were she to understand her church by the first perspective that extracts recognized piety from other behavior, she might identify Communion as specifically Christian and the other activities as the unavoidable, self-oriented burdens of corporate life. To prepare for mission, in this view of things, would require the members of a congregation to discount their self-serving stuff, attempting to slough it off in order to offer their more recognizably Christian hopes and actions, such as the grace and love witnessed in their Communion, to other people. Mission in such terms assumes the separability within the congregation of purer Christian expression from the general travail of corporate intercourse. In this view, the congregation communicates by word and deed what is uniquely Christian, in the hope that other sectors of society will receive the offering into their own community struggle.

Or the pastor, following a course similar to the one I propose, might ponder whether the Communion, the music dispute, and the plumbing repair were themselves interlocked in some more complex congregational configuration whose whole reflects the plight and promise of other communities throughout the world. The three events do, after all, involve breaks: one of bread, another of harmony, and the third of water. In each case the fraction can disclose the basic human imaginative working that through millennia has given form to primal sound and matter to render it Word and Sacrament, melody, and cleansing. Furthermore, each instance in some way depicts a community in trouble. Although the congregation knits itself together by inspired strands such as liturgies, musical programs, and water systems, each by the activity of the same congregation also corrupts its nature and threatens the congregation’s own life together. Death and betrayal, foretold in eucharistic action but belying that action’s intent, nonetheless continue to occur within the church. Strife tears processes apart; use makes resources such as plumbing fail. The events of Eucharist, broken pipes, and congregational conflict may seem to be atomized happenings of widely separated meaning. They are, however, the components of a larger human story whose themes embrace recurrent antinomies of saving and losing, hope and routine. The story relates a struggle throughout history for community leavened both by decay and evil and by the gospel of God.

Mission for a congregation conceived in images that embrace the totality of parish experience has a different starting point than that which extracts from the whole a designated piety. Such mission begins with a greater appreciation of a local church’s own finitude, its own ethos drawn from the world’s symbols but particularized in a cultural pattern specific to its own corporate life. Were it to recognize its own structured custom, a congregation might find in other societies, bodies in their own right, a strange consonance, distinct but bonded to that local church in a similarly symbolic toil for community. While congregations and other types of society possess obviously different intentions, they nevertheless work through analogous forms of culture in which a local church might recognize its deeper solidarity with other human groups.

Such a perspective for congregational mission implies that Christ is already present in every community struggle, not just churchly ones, and that the gospel the congregation witnesses to other groups is more likely encountered in those groups’ own setting than imported from our parish home. Given such a perspective, missional words and actions would spring less from a sense of extracting out of our social dross an identifiably golden Christian behavior for application elsewhere than from the promise that God is already in Christ reconciling the world of each group to Godself, including the territories, nearby or distant, that our local church is privileged to approach in mission.

My personal experience illustrates the difference between a parish missiology based on extraction and one based on discovery. After my seminary training, my family and I went to West Africa as missionaries. As with other new missionaries, my goal in 1954 was to bring Christ to Africa, a continent not dark but dusky enough in my view to need the light that shone more brightly in my American home. It was a case of believing that one area had what another lacked and of being at a time in history when I felt I could personally act as a bridge that permitted the transfer of that good from one area to the other. Traffic on the bridge, moreover, was to move both ways: concepts and methods of the gospel were indeed to flow from their American abundance to Africa, but in the other direction was to run the electricity of Africa to listless, self-serving churches in my native land. One realm which excelled in knowing what and knowing how could be linked symbiotically, it seemed, with another which instead had pointed energy, if only bridges were to span the gap between them.

I learned several lessons during our years in Africa. The first was that I could not to any significant degree shed my foreign character; thus my words about Christ and my, I hope, Christian behavior were saturated with the culture I had wanted to leave at home. Try as I might, I could extract no separate Christian word and deed. Second, I learned that I did not function as the primary expression of the gospel in an African community. The community itself did. What I came to discover in Africa was that Christ was already there and that, far from being the bridge for his entry, I, as my own dusk thinned somewhat, might have been a minor witness to his presence, already embedded in people’s life together. In the later 1950s, as I matured within the loving bonds of that society, Africa became for me not one side of a bridge but a whole sphere of redemptive life, sustaining within itself those features which earlier I had felt must come from outside.

The remainder of this book follows some implications of realizing that congregations everywhere are thick gatherings of complicated actions, each parish distinctive in its expression, each possessing its own genius yet incarnating in that peculiarity the worldly message and mission of Christ. We shall explore the congregation as we might a village, trying to learn the particular cultural patterns by which it attempts to make itself whole, but also finding within it forms by which other groups in the world coalesce, disintegrate, and yet manifest the gospel.


1. A survey of recent studies of the local congregations is the basis for chapter 2 of this book. In somewhat different form, the survey appears in James F. Hopewell, "Ghostly and Monstrous Churches," The Christian Century 99 (1982): 663-65.

2. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, chap. 1.

3. Wade Clark Roof, Community and Commitment, 178-79, takes issue with research that construes belief primarily from the credal statements of a church: "Theological doctrines are always filtered through people’s social and cultural experiences. What emerges in a given situation as ‘operant religion’ will differ considerably from the ‘formal religion’ of the historic creeds, and more concern with the former is essential to understanding how belief systems function in people’s daily lives."

4. "Individual congregations within one judicatory have very different ideological systems.... The difference between the extremes of the systematic value structure of congregations has grown tremendously" (James D. Anderson, To Come Alive! 32). "Congregations are unique. No two congregations are alike" (Loren Mead, New Hope for Congregations, 96). Sociological confirmation of the heterogeneity of congregations within a single denomination is found in the various articles of James D. Davidson listed in chapter 2, n. 22, of this volume; in Donald L. Metz, New Congregations: Security and Mission in Conflict (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 25; and in William H. Anderson, "The Local Congregation as a Subculture," Social Compass 18 (1971): 287-91.

5. Victor W. Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, 29.

6. Referring to what he terms their "multivocality," Victor Turner proposes that symbols condense within a single formulation a number of meanings and values significant to a people (The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1967], 19-41). Cf. Turner’s introduction to Edward R. Spence, ed., Forms of Symbolic Action (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1970). Turner finds in each symbol a polarization of physiological referents and those which disclose a "depth world of prophetic, half-glimpsed images.... Symbols resonate with meanings."

7. Symbols perform, for Geertz, a synthesizing action that relates their stored meanings and depicts a social behavior they also evoke (Interpretation of Cultures, 87- 141).

8. Average congregational size is computed from statistics in the 1970 and 1980 editions of Constant H. Jacquet, Jr., ed., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville: Abingdon Press).

9. Congregations have received such casual analysis that few technical definitions of their nature exist. Mine builds upon Morris Freilich’s concept of community in his Marginal Natives, 520. As is already evident, I also use the terms "local church," "parish," and occasionally "church" to denote the congregation.

10. Gwen Kennedy Neville describes forms of "religious familism" and its tension with congregational character in John H. Westerhoff and Gwen Kennedy Neville, Generation to Generation, and again in their Learning Through Liturgy (New York: Seabury Press, 1978).

11. William L. Warner, The Family of God: A Symbolic Study of Christian Life in America (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1961).

12. Gregor T. Goethals, The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981).

13. Robert H. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1975).