"What is needed is a congregational, missional imagination.”
Gary Simpson wants students to understand that the context of their public ministry is a living congregation.
"As congregational leaders, they have a unique opportunity to contribute to the Christian faith and its nurture, to its outreach and its spread, as well as to its depth," says Simpson, who spent 14 years as a pastor before coming to Luther in 1990.
"Every congregation has a public character, indeed, is a public character," Simpson says. "This publicness is focused primarily in worship, preaching and the celebration of the sacraments. These events are the very publicness of the triune God, and all other dimensions of congregational life flow out of them."
Just as each Christian has a vocation in the world, each congregation also has a vocation. This means that traditional congregations, which are often ethnically grounded, must think about their mission and place in the community in a new way.
Simpson cites as an example a local congregation, founded about 60 years ago on the city's edge to minister to an expanding suburban population. That task has been largely accomplished. A new population of recently arrived immigrants now waits to be discovered just across the street from the church, within the boundaries of the city.
"To minister to this population this will require a different kind of thinking on the part of the congregation," he says. "What is needed is a congregational, missional imagination."
When questions of congregation and mission become the center of theological reflection, the roles of lay leadership and the pastor change and expand.
"For the last 50 years, we have seen the pastor mostly as a chaplain to individuals and families," Simpson says. "But now the pastor also has the task of publicly leading a congregation into the future, while representing the congregation and its vision to the larger community."