Story Magazine - First Quarter, 2006

Notes From the Mission Field: Becoming a Centered Congregation

by Richard Bliese, President and Associate Professor of Mission

Locally and globally, congregations that strive to become missionally dynamic share at least one commitment in common: they are striving to center their life together in the word of God. It doesn't matter whether it's the church council or the choir that is meeting; whether the pastoral staff is planning a new worship service or the trustees are planning for new facilities; whether it's the seniors who are gathering or the youth group; the word of God is placed at the center. Church renewal and congregational health begin and end with the word. Scripture proclaims that Jesus Christ, the living word of God, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. How do we practically live out this confession?

Placing the word of God at the center of congregational life doesn't come easily. Intentional planning and organizational skills are needed to make this basic confession a reality. It doesn't just happen because we believe it.

While I was a pastor at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Glenwood, Ill., we attempted to become centered in the word through three intentional actions. First, we set congregational goals based upon our identity as a Lutheran congregation. Luther's cry was that the church's life and witness needed to be based on the word alone, sola scriptura. We understood this confession, true, but we hadn't taken any concrete steps to actually live it out. The question was clear: How could we own our theological heritage?

First, we set high standards. We set the goal that 75 percent of our active members would be in regular weekly Bible study. Regular weekly Bible study meant participation in Bible study groups, Sunday school preparation or small group meetings.

The congregation responded enthusiastically. Our people wanted to be pushed to goals of faithfulness as a community.

Second, we symbolized our commitment by giving away Bibles in worship. We placed expensive Bibles in our sanctuary chairs (over $35 apiece). We used these Bibles, instead of bulletins, when the scriptures were read in worship. At the end of each service we made the following announcement: "If anyone needs a Bible, and if anyone knows someone who needs a Bible, please take home the Bible today as a gift of the congregation. We give you this gift because this congregation is committed to giving away the word of God." If you make this confession regularly in worship, it becomes very quickly part of the congregation's self understanding.

Third, we dedicated a night of the week to food and the Bible as a community. We gathered on Wednesday nights for a community meal, Bible study, adult catechism and Alpha groups. We were a small congregation. That was an advantage. These nights became important opportunities for all our members, both new and old,to be challenged and deepened in the word of God.

If your confession is that the word of God gives life and leads to mission, how does your congregation place this source of life at its center? There is no more important question than this for congregational leaders committed to mission. Our congregation reached its 75 percent goal. And yet, the ultimate goal still motivated us in our prayers: "God,center us in your word."