The Potential of a Congregation
Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
Psalm 73:1–20, 2 Corinthians 4:5–15, Matthew 9:35–10:4
During these summer months, I have explored with you what it means to be a pastor and what it means to be a preacher. Today, I want to explore with you what it means to be a congregation.
First, a few words about what it does not means to be a congregation. A congregation of Jesus Christ is not to be identified as a loose gathering of people who are individually focused on their personal walk with Jesus. A congregation cannot be defined simply as a place that offers an array of activities from which people can pick and choose to fit with their personal walk with the Lord. Now, surely each person in a congregation will confess Jesus as Lord and surely a congregation will offer activities that strengthen personal faith. But a congregation is so much more than a group of individuals pursuing their private agendas.
A congregation is a living web of relationships. A congregation is a body unto itself that attracts individuals into it. When you as an individual get attached to a congregation, you add your life to the life of the body. Your individuality changes the body called congregation when you come into it. You make the body called congregation different, richer, more diverse, complicated and complex. Consequently, you make the body called congregation more stable, resilient, nimble, attractive, interesting, and expansive. We want people to be attracted to join the body called the congregation of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in order that we might be better.
But there’s more about a congregation. When you come into our body, you receive an infusion of life from this body called congregation. The infusion of life into you from this body called congregation makes you a richer, more complex, and resilient person. Now the notion that a person blossoms who is rooted in a web of relationships is an old principle. However, it has recently gotten new, economic confirmation. The Economist magazine published studies of 72.2 million young adults who use Facebook. These studies on big data suggest that if you are in a group where you can form friendships across social classes, you are likely to complete your education, not get pregnant early, and increase your future earnings by 8.2 percent. Just for being in a relationship with someone different than you are. And not surprisingly, the studies done by sociologists identified the church as the place most likely for those friendships across social classes to happen.
Power resides in a body called congregation. But the power of a congregation extends way beyond economic power. Congregations have power to shape, power to motivate, power to change. I want to talk about the power of the congregation today using our scripture lessons as illustrations.
The first point I want to make is drawn from our gospel lesson. Jesus gives power to the body called congregation. Without the power of Jesus residing in the congregation, we are like so many sheep milling about without a shepherd. That is a threatening way to live. Jesus has compassion on a situation spinning out of control without a leader, without someone in charge. There is too much potential being wasted by milling about aimlessly. He brings order to a disorderly flock, stability to an unstable mix, and direction to a group who are going off in all directions. Jesus brings order through his call to follow him, he brings stability through his rock-solid trust in God, and he brings direction through his commanding us to a mission.
When you are baptized, you are enveloped into the power of Jesus that gives a congregation order, stability and direction. I liken the power of Jesus to a spider web where there is room for everyone to fit in, to make a contribution, and be on the grid where you are infused with life greater than our private lives.
In the time remaining, I want to use the Old Testament lesson from Psalm 73 and the Epistle lesson from 2 Corinthians as two very important illustrations of how the power of Jesus translates into the power of a congregation.
Psalm 73 illustrates the power of the congregation to keep people who are in spiritual collapse within the embrace of God. The speaker of this psalm candidly tells us that he or she is so let down by the wicked prospering while the speaker’s upright life has known nothing but grim sorrow. God should not let this happen. The speaker is so let down by God, that walking away from God is a very live option. The speaker is ready to become an atheist, or at the very least an agnostic, and certainly a church drop-out.
But the congregation has power to pull the speaker away from taking that step. What is it that pulls the speaker away from dropping out? It is the power of the circle of those who trust me, those who have trusted me enough to invite me into their web of life. Even if I feel that God has let me down, I cannot let down the circle who trusts me. The obligation to the circle of those who trust me has greater pull on the speaker than the doubts or hurt or shame caused by the wicked going scot free.
In my youth group back in the 50s we used to sing, “I would be true, for there are those who trust me.” The power web of relationships keeps the speaker true to his group, even in the greatest doubts. The power web of relationships impels the doubting speaker to go back into the great sanctuary. There the one who has been hurt so badly finds out that the goodness of God comes through feeling the presence of God rather than through the enjoyment of good things. God’s presence has never forsaken anyone who is struggling with doubt. Had the power of the congregation not been active in holding on to their struggling friend, impelling the doubter to get to a place for a fresh grip, someone would have slipped away.
Whatever your circumstances, this body of St. Stephen can keep you from slipping away. Even with your doubts, the togetherness you have with us is so much more than who you could be all alone. And now to my second illustration.
The congregation possesses a power that motivates amazing lives who pour themselves out for what the congregation does to extend the grace of God to more and more. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul recounts how the congregations Paul establishes and cares for motivate him to stretch beyond his limits, to strategize to his wit’s end, to know the depths of despair and, at the same time, these congregations motivate him to experience rejuvenation, renewal, resilience, that keeps him going. That’s the power of Jesus personalized within the faces of the Corinthians that motivates Paul. He says that everything we do is motivated by you, is all for your sakes, so that you the congregation can work to make more and more people say, “Thanks be to God!”
So what about the power of the congregation called St. Stephen? You have seen the opportunity appear to extend grace of God. Mission trip, Room in the Inn, card ministry, Habitat for Humanity, disaster assistance. You have seen time and again the power of this congregation to motivate a pouring out of grace. You see how volunteers show up with time and expertise and money and say, “What can I do? Where is the greatest need? How much do you need?” And from every corner comes the glad cry, “Thanks be to God, for St. Stephen Presbyterian Church.” Such is the power of Jesus that flows through the power of St. Stephen.