The church at its best is simple and relational.
I was in a meeting the other day when someone asked us to reflect on a time when we experienced the church at it’s best. I thought for a moment about all the incredible ministry I have had the opportunity to be a part of, and all the great sermons I’ve heard. But it was something much different that ultimately rose to the surface.
A handful of years ago I was struggling with depression in a renewed and really challenging way. My church at that time was a place of respite and comfort and safety, and when I was alongside those incredible people it made me feel a little more whole.
One day in the middle of worship I began to cry as we sang a hymn. As I sat down and tried to take some deep breaths and gather myself, I began to feel hands on my shoulder. First one, then another, then two more. As you can imagine, this made me cry just a little bit harder. But my tears suddenly shifted from those of the deep loneliness that depression creates, to tears of gratitude and safety that only community can bring.
That, for me, is the church at it’s best.
As I remembered that moment in the pews many years ago, I was struck by how so much of my work and imagination has been developed and nurtured in my love for Christian community. Not church, per se, but authentic community in and through Jesus Christ.
Now as I, like so many others, begin to emerge from the cavern of the COVID19 pandemic, I am aware of how much I am longing for a return to the sustenance and the support of a community like this. How much I miss the very simple, but incredibly powerful, practices that make Christian community so beautiful, but that were lost to us in a world where being together was a risk. And I am hoping that the experience of the pandemic, and the renewed movement for racial and economic justice, has burnt away some of the unnecessary chaff in our churches that clog up the spaces for authentic and meaningful connection.
I am praying that we will remember that our relationships are not an end to a means, but an incredible gift from a loving and relational God. When we think about our desire to be in relationship with our neighbor, I hope that the temptation to see that relationship as a strategy for congregational survival falls away. I pray that we might see the glory and power in just walking alongside one another in mutual love and connection. Let’s not overcomplicate or objectify relationship but find the joy and blessing in one another.
I hope that we remember that programming is for people, not the other way around. And in fact, I wouldn’t mind letting some of our standard programming stay dormant for this next year while we reorient ourselves to what it means to belong to one another in Jesus. I have been so encouraged by congregations in the Twin Cities who learned anew what it means to be in relationship with a neighborhood, rather than offering programs to a neighborhood, especially in the midst of the uprising following the murder of George Floyd. I hope these lessons stick and spread to neighborhoods all over the country.
I hope we commit to accompanying one another through the challenges of grief, repentance, anger, and guilt that so many of us have been navigating for months. I can’t speak for everyone, but what I need most right now is a community that is willing to make space for the tangle of feelings that occupy my body on any given day.
And the beauty is, Christian community is built to do these very things. Our liturgy, our hymnody, and the Psalter give us language and images that help us to see where God is drawing us, tangled feelings and all, into the story of the Beloved community. They give us the comfort of a merciful God, the command of a righteous God, and the promises of a faithful God.
In Christian community, God gives us one another to speak this Word to each other and to serve through acts of accompaniment, hospitality, and justice. We hear the Word and speak the Word in a rhythm that becomes the very breath of the church. And we are gifted with faith and confidence through this breathing church that God makes a way out of no way and walks with us in one another.
So, for those of us who work in the church, and those who organize and lead in the church, I am challenging us to go slow and to attend to the practices that build trusting and abiding relationships. I am challenging us to be spaces where we can encounter one another as real people. This is as simple as making space in our prayers to hear what the congregation has weighing on them this week. Or holding informal gatherings without expectations and homework, just the promise of shared presence. It’s as simple as speaking honestly about what we’re grieving and promising to face it together in faith.
I pray we remember that simple acts of love, grounded in faith, are the first signs of Christian community. More than anything, the hands that held my shoulders while I cried in a pew, showed me what the church at its best can be. That is the Christian community I need most right now, and I pray that I can be part of that community for others. We have a long way to go yet, so let’s keep it simple, and make our churches a place where anyone can find healing and safety when those tears start to fall.
Originally published at https://nicholastangen.com on November 19, 2021.