Guest post by Jim Kitchens, CHC consultant.
Last week I gathered with ten other people who love the church, love its congregations, and love their leaders to talk about how we might work together under the banner of the Center for Healthy Churches. Being with them felt a bit like attending a homecoming.
It felt like a homecoming, because most of the people around the table were Cooperative Baptists, that part of the Baptist family to which I would surely belong had I not left the fold in my 20’s. Their cadences of speech, their ways of framing conversations about ministry and mission, and their wisdom that rises out of their long experience as pastors, coaches, and consultants all sounded hauntingly familiar.
But while it felt like a homecoming, I also understood that the conversation represented something new. The fact that I – a Presbyterian pastor who has spent most of his time leading congregations in northern California – had been invited to the table meant that it was the dawning of a new day for the Center.
Having been birthed in the south Atlantic states (geographically) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (ecclesiastically), my presence signaled that the Center is positioning itself to grow beyond its initial boundaries. Thank God for that, because the issues today’s American congregations face are not limited to one part of the country, one side of the too often assumed conservative/liberal split, or one denominational tradition.
We live in a time of great change, especially change in the culture in which we faithfully seek to embody the hope of the Gospel. We need institutions that are willing to grapple with those issues head on and to grapple with them across a broad front.
We began our time together by going around the table and introducing ourselves. Pushing us to go beyond the usual pleasantries, Bill asked us to say something about why we were in the room: what it was that drew us into wanting to work with churches and their leaders.
My jaw began to drop halfway through the first person’s self-introduction. I was completely astounded by the time we got a third of the way around the table.
People spoke about their passion for supporting congregations and pastors and their unshakeable hope for the future of the church in spite of all the statistics that point toward its decline in America.
But what really bowled me over was the incredible variety of gifts they possessed. I found myself struggling to pay attention to each person as s/he spoke, because my mind was racing as I imagined the all the possibilities for collaboration among us. With each person’s introduction, those possibilities grew exponentially.
In a completely unbidden way (which is how I often find the Holy Spirit working in me these days), I began to hear the verses in Ephesians 4 that remind us of God’s promise to pour out a lavish variety of gifts on the people of God, gifts that are to be used in mission. Clearly, the folks at the Center’s table had claimed that baptismal promise and had generously offered their gifts to the “building up the body of Christ.”
Two of our colleagues – one who works in a hospital setting and one who employs an organic model for thinking about the health of organizations and systems – regularly lifted up the analogy between the health of the church and the health of the human body. They helped me remember that there is a long heritage of Christian leaders who have drawn upon that bodily analogy, stretching all the way back to the apostolic era.
The author of Ephesians speaks metaphorically about the church as the body of Christ when he writes, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
I’m very excited about how God will work through those of us who sat around the Center’s table last week. I’m even more excited about new learning communities that are springing up all around the country as Christians of every tradition and every theological perspective talk with one another about the new things they sense the Spirit is doing in the church today and share their insights (and their gifts) with one another. We who are helping to form the Center invite all of you to join in on that conversation. Together, we can make an important contribution to the work of building healthy churches.
Jim Kitchens is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute.