By Paul Koch –
Every congregation is its own unique entity, not completely separate from others but also not a simple reproduction. A gathering of God’s people around his Word and gifts will be impacted by those very people, and so it will display a unique character as the blessings of God impact a particular people in a particular time and place. This means that every congregation will have its own ethos that permeates how it worships, makes decisions, and views itself in the cultural landscape.
No doubt, a congregation’s ethos will primarily be shaped by its leaders, whose words and actions will begin to give a congregation a sense of itself. But each member of a given congregation will impact that ethos as well, each one adding their own flavor and personality to the overall group. As a particular congregation confesses the faith they’ve received in their particular context, it will undoubtedly have a different feel or flavor than another church even in the same town.
The most common metaphor for understanding the organic nature of a congregation is that of a body. As St. Paul says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:11-13). Each member of the body is important. Each member has its purpose, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” The great strength of this metaphor is the body’s sensitivity and relationship to all its members. The focus is that “the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:25-26).
While we might see this metaphor as a foundational understanding of the ethos of a congregation, there is still more that can and will be added to that picture. Congregations have viewed themselves as various things including a lighthouse leading the way to the safe harbor or a spiritual hospital bringing healing and aid to the hurting. Some view themselves as educators opening schools and providing day care. These images shape how a body of Christ views itself, and so they color the ethos of the congregation.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about a very different metaphor for the shaping of a congregation’s ethos: the congregation as a local gang. Ever since there has been government, there have been gangs. There have been those small groups that gather around a particular confession and are bound by a set code of honor. The gang draws a perimeter around itself. Inside the perimeter are those brothers and sisters that are part of the gang, and outside the perimeter is the rest of the world. Those inside the perimeter are of first importance. Perhaps we get a sense of this when Jesus prays in John 17, saying, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:6-9) or when we pray Luther’s famous “Flood Prayer” at a Baptism, saying, “Grant that they be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers…”
I’ve been exploring this metaphor with my congregation for the past few months during my many tangents in Bible study, and people are already joking about the need to get tattoos or even leather jackets on which to carry our gang’s logo. A gang has some ritual entrance (confirmation?) into the fellowship along with collective activities that are significant to the identity of the gang, yet the gang doesn’t care if they are significant to those on the outside. The individual’s value is determined by those on the inside and never those on the outside.
The appeal of the body of Christ as a gang is not all that dissimilar to the appeal of any local gang. It is the binding of one person to another by an oath that reestablishes the status of the fellowship. It is Jesus speaking of family in Matthew 12, “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
A gang is fiercely protective of their own. If someone is hurting or in trouble, they marshal the whole group to come to their aid. After all, those inside the gang are the priority. These days, there is a lot being written about the need for a tribe or some sort of honor society to give identity and purpose to an individual. The Church can and does certainly function that way already, but perhaps we might be intentional in making the perimeter establishing gang part of the ethos of the congregation. And encouragement perhaps to continue to make our stand while caring for our brothers and sisters till the end.