Month: August 2021

Congregation Identity: The Church in the Heart of Community

Published / by Dean Eland

First in the Series

This article is the first in a series of reflections about the significance of context and the way churches develop partnership with others to enrich community life. While maintaining our traditional patterns of ministry congregations become learning communities by listening to the rhythms of community life, sharing insights with others and connect with others by sharing common goals and aspirations.

Local vision can reflect a global perspective where in “the imagined city… there is a space for openness, tolerance, and justice in which the nations of the world can gather and live-in peace” (Beaumont and Baker 2011).

Our vision statements are a profound declaration and resonate with our hopes and aspirations. They often share similar insights with others. All churches share common practices and liturgies, prayers, songs, traditions and practices link us with the worldwide Christian community. In many diverse Australian settings, in remote or small rural towns, in inner urban and industrial towns, in the suburbs and regional and city centres we share songs, liturgies and readings in common. Yet in this midst of shared traditions, we are often intrigued by discovering the unique identity, character, culture or DNA of each congregation.  At least three perspectives help to create a congregation’s identity.

Congregational identity is shaped by experiences and history. Current practices, the way we do things around here, is the product of those in the past who have made critical decisions and established patterns of behaviour and agreed procedures. These repertoires of community life enshrine values and express what is important and central to a congregation’s life. Those who have gone before having built community, celebrated faith and developed their own narrative and story. Corporate memory includes moments when risks were taken, achievements celebrated, and difficult decisions negotiated. There are times when members have worked together and found a strong sense of purpose and direction and there are moments when disagreements and conflict have been to the fore.

A congregation’s character is shaped by those who developed and pursued a vision for the church in their time and context. A congregation’s legacy is made up from those who not only talked or imagined possibilities but developed practices and turned vision into reality.  As with individuals, memories and experiences are the foundations for our assumptions and shape our outlook. Sometimes we need to confront these assumptions, come to terms with them, affirm them or set them aside.

Congregations also express their identity through their denominational association and over the past two decades this has become less meaningful for people in what has been called the post-Christian society.  Many of our congregations in South Australia were founded at a time when cultural distinctiveness reflected migration patterns and European custom. Now and in times past churches continue to be impacted by life changing events which are beyond the control of the church council! Following the 2020 epidemic lockdowns have impacted our routines and practices and challenge us to find creative ways in sustaining community life.

The next article in this series will explore the implications of particular contexts and the way this helps us ground our life and leads us to share in God’s mission in the world.