Chapter13: Epilogue: The Ministry and Mission of Congregational Story

Congregation: Stories and Structures
by James F. Hopewell

Chapter13: Epilogue: The Ministry and Mission of Congregational Story

Narrative can be a means by which the congregation apprehends its vocation. Though I have written this book in part to set forth what I think is a neglected perspective among scholars, researchers, and consultants who study congregations, at the end of the ministerial day it matters less whether private analysts understand the narrative features of the congregation than whether the congregation itself understands those features. If through greater sensitivity to its stories a local church better discerns its constitution and mission, the effort of narrative analysis will have a significant result.

That a congregation communicates by narrative is not merely a descriptive fact. It is also a normative intention of Christian ministry. A healthy congregation, like a healthy family, is one that understands and tells its stories. Neither families nor parishes can, in any event, escape some kind of narrative exchange, but their vigor in part depends upon the degree to which they know that they know these narratives. Parish self-understanding, like that of a family, depends upon its perception of itself in a particular time and form, with a memory of its past and the capacity for an open yet characteristic future. A vital congregation is one whose self-understanding is not reduced to data and programs but which instead is nurtured by its persistent attention to the stories by which it identifies itself. Thus a congregation that wants to deepen its perception of what it is and where it is going should consider what James Hillman called "restorying,"1 the conscious employment of accounts by which its corporate life is structured and interpreted. To ignore story, or to treat it lightly, is to miss a major way by which a congregation may come to terms with its identity and calling.

The central argument of this book is that narratives, like sacraments, can be signs that do things. As J. B. Metz reports, a story can have a practical and performative aspect, not just a descriptive function.2 Three potent actions of ministry are latent in the stories that a congregation tells about itself. They correspond to the major sections of the book. First is the ministry of evocation present in congregational storytelling: the development of an awareness "that we are." Second is the ministry of characterization: the deepening of the sense of "who we are." Finally there is the ministry of confession: the congregation’s acknowledgment of "what we are."

a. Evocation. If uncorrected by story, the subtle message of a congregation portrayed primarily by its statistics and programs is that members are essentially private contributors to the church who volunteer their presence, time, funds, and energy to constitute its being. Much of the current understanding of Christian commitment begins with the individual, who, supposedly, from a personal stock of time and resources provides for the church. Storytelling represents a different way of considering commitment, one that depicts members as agents in a drama, not donors to a program. By its ministry of evocation, parish story incorporates participants in a common entity. Narrative establishes "that we are." It works against the notion that the congregation is a loose aggregate of miscellaneous souls whose relationship to each other is summed up in the private contribution that each makes to an unsubstantiated whole.

A major function of parish story, therefore, is the formulation of a larger setting for the self, one that situates the individual as part of a society and a world. In establishing a setting, narrative acknowledges that what "I" am only gains sense in the matrix that "we" are. "I" do not as donor create the corporate entity and the world that holds it; rather, "I" figure as actor in the larger narrative that group and world provide. Insofar as parish story is told with attention to its setting, then, we state that we are not adrift as atoms in a chaotic soup. By narrative we are comrades in common story, first with those who play out the story in our congregation, but ultimately with all people who in communal discourse inhabit the world. Jesus cleansed the temple of symbols that suggested that worshipers by their private donations of money and animals could constitute the temple’s activity. The temple, his action suggested, did not require such gifts. It was the house of God: its corporate prayer constituted the worshipers and formulated their setting.

Any congregational setting or world view, particular and idiomatic as it may be, evokes the commonality even of those who do not adhere to it. For each particular view is formed in negotiation, sometimes in contention with its opposite, often in conspiracy with a different but partly allied view. Thus empiric Wiltshire links itself, in one way or the other, to a wide array of divergent views and those who hold them. Thus my hospital visitors and I, as different and even contradictory as were our various views of my plight, found that our telling of world stories evoked among us a corporate ministry.

b. Characterization. "A man’s sense of his identity," Stephen Crites says, "seems largely determined by the kind of story which he understands himself to have been enacting through the events of his career, the story of his life."3 The story told by Hero Trinity enabled the congregation to consider its peculiar identity. The second ministry of parish narrative is to articulate the character of the congregation, the persistent distinctiveness that individuates the church from its setting and from other bodies. Ministers, I noted much earlier, refer to the unique character of the church as its personality. But character is a more adequate term to describe the full ethos of the parish, its specific pattern of dispositions and values. It is in its distinctive experiences through time that these traits and norms are expressed, and story is the vehicle that accounts for them. Telling the story identifies the parish’s moral particularity, the finite role and behavioral dimensions of the church’s life.

The conscious use of myth in the ministry of characterization does more than merely sharpen the story. It also encourages a more authentic storytelling and thus a more faithful ministry. Wendy O’Flaherty explains. We can best understand our own myths, she says, "by translating them into other myths, by drawing them back into that internal hub where our own reality, our own nature, intersects with the myths preserved by tradition, by culture."4 Finding the mythic resonance of congregational story is not an eccentric action, diverting the group from real self-knowledge. The correlate myth, rather, draws perception toward O’Flaherty’s hub, the center of human characterization. "Properly understood," she continues, "myths provide a conceptual system through which one may understand and thereby construct a universal reality, a roundhouse where we can move from the back of one person’s reality to another’s, passing through the myth that expresses them all.’’5

There is always the danger of distortion in relating stories about one’s church, accentuating the achievements and minimizing the failures. A greater danger of distortion occurs, of course, in the congregation that totally neglects its story, but even in the best of tellings there persists the temptation to flatter the teller or the audience. What O’Flaherty reports about myth, however, is that using it consciously provides a means of directing the narrative to ordinary social constructions of reality. Myth seldom flatters; it reminds us of our labor to interpret ourselves in an uncertain world and of our commonality with other societies in the labor. An entirely objective assessment of congregational character can never be gained by any means. But telling the congregational story in counterpoint with mythic parallels may give it greater chance of being a "true" story.

When the corporate story and myth are not used to characterize the tellers, the group finds other ways to account for its condition. When a parish lacks a narrative sense of its corporate identity, it will probably assume that its nature is the aggregate of personal stories of individuals prominent in its life. It therefore may glorify or, by scapegoating, condemn such persons out of all proportion to their actual consequence. Frequently these projections focus on the pastor, who, without the constraint of the larger parish story, is extravagantly praised or blamed for the condition of the congregation. Parish story tempers the tendency to create goats and heroes, providing in their stead a corporate identity by which to characterize the happenings of the church.

It is now several years since Bigelow Church first told its Briar Rose story, and it still wrestles with the implications. A new team of pastor and young assistant have been appointed to the church, and members voice the hope that "the suitor has now penetrated the thorns." "We were a teenaged church," says one member, "and now we are waking up." "The myth of Briar Rose was still active until the fall of 1981," says the assistant pastor, "but members have now got restless and have dug themselves out of the thistles." Bigelow members have focused on the problem of their frail identity. They feel that they have now consolidated their programs and financial prospects and that their sense of community has measurably increased under the care of their new pastor. Anger is still expressed about the manner in which earlier ministers did not "parent" them in a way that would have permitted their childhood "innocence, beauty, and wonder" to bloom a bit longer.

Has Bigelow escaped the Briar Rose myth? A number in the congregation believe that the tale no longer characterizes the church. Some have speculated, though based on little new research, that the church may now live in consonance with another fairy story: Cinderella. Bigelow is today known by passers-by as the Pumpkin Church because of the tons of pumpkins that its young people sell in its yard before Halloween. Prince Charming may have come to the church in the form of its new pastor, who is significantly more acceptable than his immediate predecessors. In the terms of this new myth, the church considers itself treated poorly by its former pastor-parents, who, it feels, abused, ignored, and abandoned it. "Sandwiched," as it says, "between two great churches," Bigelow persistently compares its poorer lot with two sister Methodist churches. Prince Charming, moreover, promises a castle, for he is leading a movement to build a new sanctuary to replace the present casket-like structure in which Bigelow worships. Bigelow feels, like Cinderella, the possibility of transformation.

What matters here is not which myth to employ. What is significant is that Bigelow has learned to wrestle with the nature of its character by the use of narrative. It is able by metaphor to talk publicly about its serious problems, more able than most churches I have encountered. It is also more clear and candid about its hopes. Without platitudes or promotional rhetoric it can express its dreams and talk about awakening and new life. It has, through narrative, come to terms with the particularity of its character.

c. Confession. Confession, like story, involves both an exercise of memory of what has occurred and the anticipation of what might happen next. In story, especially in a confessional form that stakes parish life within the gospel story, the congregational plot develops from a remembered past through a confessed present to a promised yet open future. Narratives relate the possibility of transformation, the unpredictable outcome of present congregational actions and decisions. To tell the congregational story, therefore, is an act of confession in which the parish acknowledges that while it is the principal author of its plot, and accepts the design of its past and the nature of its present, in the light of God’s story for all humankind it also resolves to claim a transformed future.

Unless its corporate story is confessed, a congregation may drift in despair. Unless the plot is found that connects its actions and identifies their course, corporate life has no point, no conclusion. How does the recounting of the story to date set up the future? Charles Winquist likens it to homecoming, a return to dwelling:

Storytelling can be allied to homecoming because homecoming is more than the collection of actuality. It is more than a bare statement of our facticity. Homecoming is a re-collection of experience. Our remembrance is an interpretation. We tell a story about the actuality of experience to lift it into a context of meaning that speaks out of the reality of possibility as well as actuality. The prima materia of meaning encompasses the possibilities from which the particularity of historical fact is made determinant. The re-collection of experience attends the fullness of the reality. As strange as it may seem, re-collection allows us to think ahead to the original ground of experience and become conscious of the finality of meaning that coincides with the origination of the actual.6

In telling the story of the congregation, we unravel its plot. Perhaps our version is less authentic than others yet to be told, but only in relating it does the congregation begin to come to terms with its symbolization of the way things have been for it. Then, as Winquist suggests, the group struggles by story to acknowledge the ground of its corporate existence and the possibility that projects it toward the end of all being.

Those proposing to undertake the recollective, confessional, and transforming ministry of plot must be warned, however, that this aspect of congregational story is, in J. B. Metz’s word, "dangerous." "Memory and narrative," says Metz, "only have a practical character when they are considered together with solidarity and solidarity has no specifically cognitive status without memory and narrative."7 A local church examining its own plot explores at the same time its inescapable identity with the actions of all groups: their linkages, unfoldings, thickenings, and twists. Thus a fortuitous irony awaits those congregations whose white, American, middle-class representatives are most likely to buy this book and employ some of its methods. If such relatively affluent communities do in fact attempt to move beyond their technically and psychologically sophisticated understandings of themselves to tell their household stories, they will encounter there the narrative of groups deprived of technical and academic sophistication who have little but story by which to understand and modify their corporate existence. Churches curious about their own story embark on a "dangerous" activity that might show their solidarity with the world’s poor and oppressed peoples.

An example of the danger lies close at hand. In the previous chapter, I argued that plot indicates the participation of the congregation in history. Consider how a congregation’s deepening awareness of its historicity parallels the struggle of oppressed people reported by Paulo Freire. Freire states that human groups gain consciousness of their selfhood only as they recognize themselves in the pregnant sequence of time. They "develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves [when] they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation."8 Liberation first requires that a people discover their own historicity:

Strictly speaking, "here," "now," "there," "tomorrow," and "yesterday" do not exist for the animal, whose life, lacking self-consciousness, is totally determined. Animals cannot surmount the limits imposed by the "here," the "now," or the "there." . . . Through their continuing praxis, men simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings. Because -- in contrast to animals -- men can tri-dimensionalize time into the past, the present, and the future, their history, in function of their own creations, develops as a constant process of transformation.9

By understanding their presence in time and their creative participation in its unfolding, people overcome their sense of life’s immutability and find courage for a transformed future.

Most popular notions of the future of the local church today are technical concepts that work by formula, not history. The notions build upon regularities that use numbers and statistical trends to predict the outcome of the congregation. Pictured in this mechanistic light, congregations suffer in a state resembling the dilemma of the unselfconscious, ahistorical peoples described by Freire: they do not know their plot. They do not understand the storied continuity that moves by the transfiguring power of links and twists. One of the tragedies of mainline churches that lost so many members in the 1970s was that their leadership was better equipped to offer them computer-produced documentation of their decline than to help find meaning in the changing story of each community. But the survival of the local, middle-class American church is less than half its story. In finding the forms of its own narrative, it meets also the labor of the human race in the larger struggle for meaning and freedom.

By its witting participation in its own stories the congregation becomes a mediating structure by which individuals ally themselves with the people of the world. Deepening its consciousness of the cultural forms and social processes that constitute its own household, the parish functions as a halfway house that initiates the once isolated member into the struggles of society at large. Local churches are seldom judged to have this capacity. More frequently, observers maintain that present-day congregations are unlikely to escape their captivity to local interests and private religiosity. But the congregation, by both tradition and demonstrable narrative composition, is more powerfully associated with the struggle of the whole church, the oikoumene, than often recognized. Parish resources are, as argued before, capacious, sensitive to the issues of power, open to history. If a congregation persistently wrestles -- in sermon, class, and conversation -- with its own memory and narrative, it can profoundly deepen its sense of identity with the suffering of the world.

I am not minimizing the power of social and psychological forces that mold a congregation’s conservative outlook and behavior. I am proposing, however, an alternative to the usual means employed to goad the local church to social responsibility: appeals based on shame, sympathy, and scriptural injunction. The approach through parish story is different, subversive, dangerous. Unlike the other methods, it instructs us first to watch ourselves: how we set and characterize our story, how our own plot moves through history. Shielded neither by statistical and programmatic facades of self-description nor by normative proclamations about what the church should be, we look at our finite, culture-bound symbolisms and find in them our idiomatic expression, but also structures wrought by the imaginative labor of all humanity.

The Church in the World

I want to end close to where I began, locating my argument among those of others who care about the local church. The fundamental differences among us, I believe, have to do with the various ways we envision the parish in mission within the larger world. Mission in its Christian sense means crossing the boundary between the domestic and what lies beyond the parish household. In an early chapter, I envisioned the congregation peering out of certain windows to interpret itself in the light of the part of the horizon it saw there. But congregations do more than orient themselves to one of a variety of world interpretations. They also live in engagement with the world that extends beyond, and through, their own identities.

Stephen Pepper, in his World Hypotheses, again assists me. Earlier I used, somewhat covertly, a version of Pepper’s categories to distinguish the various approaches that analysts make to understand individual congregations.10 Here I return to Pepper’s original intention and consider the root metaphors by which various thinkers have understood the world. I then search these metaphors for the place of the church within them.

Pepper finds four distinct arguments for what constitutes the world and its operation. He terms these hypotheses the contextualist, mechanist, organicist, and formist positions, and he demonstrates how philosophers and scientists have based their theories on one of the four. If our interest is the mission of the Christian church and the gospel to which that mission witnesses, we must pay close attention to what composes the world that the church engages. Pepper provides four different images. 11

In Pepper’s contextualist category, the world is the exciting and disturbing texture of current events. Missional engagement in such a world means embracing the consequences of today’s incidents, the events to be related in tomorrow’s newspaper and other chronicles. It requires the parish to recognize its dependence upon the circumambient forms of its place and epoch and to accept as its own nature the world’s problems and opportunities. A contextualist understanding of the world requires the passion of the church, the suffering of the world’s issues. Most present characterizations of world events include oppression, injustice, and anxiety. For the church to undertake its mission in a contextually conceived world compels its presence in such distress and ambiguity.

Pepper’s mechanist category portrays the world as a machine. By this metaphor the world is understood according to the regularities of its forces. Causal laws explain it. Scientific treatises rather than newspapers record its workings. Mission in such a world entails action rather than passion, impact instead of suffering. To be the church in a mechanistically conceived society is to be an initiating agent that changes the lives of those the church reaches out to touch. The congregation applies the laws of human and social behavior to the world to transform it.

Pepper’s organicist hypothesis views the world as developing toward a final integrated reality which is unapparent in its present state. In an organic process the world unifies its disparate parts, overcomes obstructions, and grows toward wholeness. A congregation in an organicist world has a different sort of mission: it uses its corporate life as a prototype of the world process. Accepting the heterogeneity of its members, the congregation takes upon itself a synthesizing activity for the world at large and strives to develop a paradigmatic fellowship, a foretaste of the ultimate community of all humanity. Eschatological vision rather than scientific treatises reveals the organicist world. Both the world and the kingdom to come occur in microcosm in the local church. In an organicist hypothesis the part discloses the whole. The life of a single parish stands for the ultimate fellowship, the koinonia, that all people will have among themselves and with their God.

There is a fourth world hypothesis that suggests still another way. The formist category of Pepper figures the world as a collectivity of structures. Different entities participate in this collectivity in different ways to derive their particular identities. Such a world rests upon the evidence of similarity, the correspondence of certain images and patterns with others, and the argument that such consonance implies a common form or structure in which similar objects participate. It is upon such a perception of the world that this book relies. To note, as I do, the correspondence between the exploits of Trinity Church and the journey of the Hero, or between sickbed tales and the genres of literature, is to propose a formist view.

This view also has as its base a missional purpose. I have been trying to convey a fourth and underused way in which the church exists in the world. Mission in my view involves a witting participation in the world’s meanings, an appreciative acknowledgment of forms of signification by which societies from the first have labored to shape and point their communities. The world in this formist argument is witnessed not so much in newspapers, scientific works, and eschatological vision as in literature and other symbolic structures.

Many missiologies assume that there are essentially two forms of mission: evangelism and service, a vertical obligation that brings people to God and a horizontal duty that requires Christians to support other human beings. The mission of the congregation in the world is actually more complex. It includes the witness and participation in social action that mechanist and contextualist understandings of the world imply. It also involves the paradigmatic modeling that an organicist interpretation promises. And, fourth, it requires that the local body identify certain of the world’s imaginative structures that give life its meaning. The gospel is conveyed through all four modes of mission. The gospel also represents the astonishing news that a local church can suffer in the world, change it, symbolize its outcome, and be subject to its interpretive structures.

Pepper’s formist hypothesis permits me to picture the congregation as a dwelling within a larger house. That, in fact, is close to the manner in which early Christians figured their own distinctive nature.12 They called themselves the paroikia, the "sojourning," that inhabited the oikoumene, the "big house" or "world." In early Christianity, paroikia was the temporary frame of a Christian community that represented its corporate life in the big inhabited house, the oikoumene. By emphasizing the temporality implied in the concept of paroikia the New Testament conveyed the alien nature of parish in its larger setting and the sojourning of Christian groups in the world.13 By patristic times, however, the spatial aspect of paroikia also proved useful because it designated the prolonged physical existence of Christian community in the world. Often in distinction to ekklesia, the whole catholic church, paroikia as parish came to signify the persistent dwelling of the individual congregation.14

Viewing the parish as house within the world house emphasizes its participation in the frame of all language. Human imagination as a whole provides the particular idiomatic and narrative construction of a congregation; its members communicate by a code derived from the totality of forms and stories by which societies cohere. In such a picture, local church culture is not reduced to a series of propositions that a credal checklist adequately probes. Rather, the congregation takes part in the nuance and narrative of full human discourse. It persists as a recognizable storied dwelling within the whole horizon of human interpretation.


1. James Hillman, "Archetypal Theory,’’ in Loose Ends (New York and Zurich: Spring Publications, 1975), 4.

2. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society, 207.

3. Stephen Crites, "Myth, Story, History," in Parable, Myth and Language, ed. Tony Stoneburner (Cambridge: Church Society for College Work. 1968), 68.

4. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, "Inside and Outside the Mouth of God: The Boundary Between Myth and Reality," Daedalus 109 (Spring 1980): 120.

5. Ibid., 121.

6. Charles E. Winquist, Homecoming: Interpretation, Transformation and Individuation, American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion no. 18 (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1978), 108.

7. Ibid., 183.

8. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), 70-71.

9. Ibid., 88-89, 91.

10. See chap. 2, n. 5.

11. There exists an obvious relationship between the four categories of Pepper and the four genres of Northrop Frye. A contextualist understanding of events linked to the indeterminate world at large invites the romantic adventure; the mechanist hypethesis about the predictable regularity of action poses instead the ironic rejoinder; organicist images of an ultimate integration tend to the comic; and formist perceptions of adherence to structured pattern are more tragic in their orientation. Correlations of these and other fourfold typologies presented throughout this book are, however, at best imprecise and at worst diminish the richness of the varied interpretive options that constitute a congregation’s web of meanings.

12. Gerhard Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1967), 5:851-53.

13. 1 Peter 1: 17; 2:11, but note Eph. 2:19. Abraham is the prototypical sojourner in Acts 7:6; Heb. 11:9; Israel in Acts 13:17.

14. Adolf von Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), 1 :408-14.