A few years ago, I wrote an article where I explored the idea of seeing the local congregation as a gang. The idea was to challenge our usual metaphors for understanding the Christian fellowship gathered in a particular place and time. The typical ones we use are that of a body (extensively used in Scripture) or a family (a popular one today). But you could certainly find others: A sanctuary, a rock, an anchor, a ship, or a lighthouse, for example. Each metaphor gives a different feel and carries with it its own connotations for the reality that we experience in a local congregation.
When I first offered the idea of a gang being a suitable metaphor for the Church it was not received very well. No doubt, there are drawbacks to such a term. Perhaps it would have been better to go with the image of a tribe. A gang, of course, brings up images of wayward and fatherless men who are seeking some inclusion, some belonging which a gang provides. Along with that inclusion and guidance comes violence and destruction in the streets. This certainly is not wholesome. It is not what we aspire to be as the Church, so perhaps hitching our identity to such an image can only go wrong. Then again, this might be exactly what these times call for.
In my congregation they have grown accustomed to the language of the gang in thinking of their church. We have discussed the limits of this metaphor and exactly what we do and do not mean by using it over the years and have developed a fairly good idea of what it means to be a gang as a church.
At its core, a gang is a circling of the wagons, a creating of a community within a greater community. There is a perimeter established. There are clearly those on the inside and those on the outside. On the inside the gang has its own rituals with its own established set of values and meaning. As a gang you do not just show up when it is convenient. In this regard it embraces the principles of a family. Once in the gang these are your new brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. They are to be protected and cared for and, in fact, become a propriety in your life.
The way my congregation sees the gang metaphor is that the perimeter around us is well guarded but porous. There is an inside and an outside but the movement from one side to the other is not particularly difficult. It is not free flowing, but it is open. Members regularly spend the bulk of their time outside the perimeter where they accumulate resources, learn skills, acquire goods and services and engage in the economy of modern life, but then they bring their spoils back inside the perimeter. Since it is porous it is also easy to bring in new members; easy to welcome others into the protection and care found on the inside.
Now, I know all metaphors have their limits. At some point they all break down and are limited in scope but this one might be primarily useful in our current climate, where counties are suing congregations for worshipping indoors or for singing without masks on. When there is a fight around the place and form of the church and, “the free exercise thereof,” perhaps thinking of ourselves as a community within the greater community is not such a bad idea. To begin to patrol the perimeter and focus our care and compassion on those on the inside first, seems like a good way to conduct ourselves.
And if (and I suppose this is the big if) we have the forgiveness and promises of Christ at the center of the gang, at the heart of what is on the inside of our perimeter, why then the gang operates with a certain strength and fearlessness that will shock and shame the world. From here we will dare to love our neighbor as ourselves, to submit to governing authorities even while refusing to obey the states infringement upon the authority of Christ. The gang is not a place of weakness and timidity but of confidence and courage.
It is time to circle the wagons, to get tattoos, to wear the right colors, and to make a stand. It is time for the baptized to rally together. It is time to be the Church. It is time to be a gang.