I am asking each congregation in the Christian Church in the Southwest to have a congregation-wide conversation around two questions:
Question 1--Tell us about the Jesus people encounter when they encounter your congregation?
Question 2--What does a person's life start to look like whenever people decide to follow Jesus within your congregation?
I'm quite serious in my request that every congregation have conversations about these questions. At the same time, I want to resist the urge to turn it into a program with branding, curriculum, and reports. People begin to assume there are "right" answers to the questions when you do all that. I'm less interested in the "right" answers and more interested in honest answers. I do hope that the conversations try to include everyone. I do hope that there are multiple chances to think about the questions--offer, revise, discern. I do hope congregations will find a way to share their answers with me. I also think that how congregations go about getting at those answers will be as different as the answers themselves.
I believe it's important that we think about how to answer the questions because we need to communicate our faith. The Good Confessions declares, "We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and profess him as Lord and Savior of the world." I treasure these words; however, we are called to minister within a context that doesn't really have a grasp of what the words Christ, Lord or Savior mean. We are called to introduce people to Jesus in new ways. Jesus is the same; we have changed. So, we need to be accessible with the stories we tell and the language we use.
I imagine that someone looks at the questions and asks--with the Apostle Paul--"Is Christ divided?" (1 Corinthians 1:13). There is only one Jesus. How can we talk about the Jesus that people encounter in our congregation as if the Jesus encountered at one congregation is different than the Jesus encountered at a church down the road and around the corner, in the next county or in another part of our region? I think the answer lies in the fact that each congregation portrays Jesus a little differently.
More than one observer has commented that American Christians tend to fall into at least two groups. There is the group of Christians who tend to stress the teaching and ministry of Jesus, but neglect the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And there are those who stress the death-burial-resurrection of Jesus and all that they mean but may neglect the teaching ministry of Jesus. Certainly that’s not completely true of any congregation and does not include every congregation, but it’s true enough to show that from congregation to congregation, people will see a different Jesus—a different portrayal of Jesus. Christ is not divided, but our portrayal is incomplete. Christ is not divided, but we are works in progress.
We can celebrate the beauty of the way Jesus has emerged through the ministry and message of our congregation. We know that our congregations reflect Christ's Holy Spirit at work in us. We also know that no one congregation can adequately present all that Jesus is. We accept both the beauty and the incompleteness of the Christ we portray. Our incomplete portrait of Jesus is evidence that we need other congregations. Why do people need denominations? Why do denominations need the ecumenical church? For precisely this reason. Two congregations can help complete the incomplete portrait of Jesus found in one congregation. And two denominations can help complete the incomplete portrait of Jesus found in any one denomination. We have been given the gift of the Jesus we do portray and yet we reach for more. We admit the ways in which we fall short and constantly strive for what's next. And so, by describing the Jesus people encounter when they encounter our congregation, we celebrate the beauty of Jesus as revealed to us and through us and we have a way of assessing where we are and how we need to grow.