Here is an exercise in counter-cultural connectionalism. It is designed to allow both the elders of a session and the pastor to reflect together on the dangers and invitation of our connectionalism as a congregation. Remember that we are speaking of narcissism as the tendency to be too focused on the self, including the congregation as itself. The universe does not revolve around either the individual pastor or the individual congregation–or around the session.
To begin the reflection, provide each elder and the pastor with a four by eight card. On one side, Elders are to write 4-5 dangers of the congregation and or session shaping their decisions on what may advantage the congregation or session. The pastor is to write 4-5 statements of the danger of focusing too much on what benefits the pastor. Let each elder share his or her list and the pastor share his or her list. (This is a time of confession. There is benefit to verbalizing this for each other.)
With those lists in mind, now let both elders and pastor list on the other side of the card 4-5 blessings that might occur when our decisions are based on faithfulness to that which is larger than the self or the congregation. For the pastor, it is a time to reflect on how he can be blessed by his service to the congregation, the larger church, and the world. For the Session, it is a time to reflect on the blessings of the church when it basis its decisions on how the congregation might serve beyond itself.
One of the blessings of our connectionalism is that an individual might be part of something bigger than self as part of a congregation and a congregation might be part of something bigger than self in association with other congregations up to and including the world wide Body of Christ.
The danger for an individual is to become to focused on the self. The danger of a congregation is to become to focused on itself. When we become too focused on the self, we become too conscious of the threats to the self and the need to protect oneself. This was the first temptation recorded for Jesus when the Spirit led (or in Mark drove) him into the wilderness. You are hungry, turn the stones into bread. Use whatever power and resources you have to protect yourself first. What good is a dead Messiah to the world? Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? The parallel is for a congregation to focus first on its survival.
The value of recognizing that we are all a part of a connectional church is to sense our relationship to God’s work through the Body of Christ in the larger world. The issues of the larger world may seem beyond our ability to affect, but as part of the larger church we can do that which transcends our capability as a single congregation. Some churches attempt to recognize that connectionalism through a minute for mission that lifts up the work of the greater church. All churches can lift up in prayer those concerns that are beyond the physical reach of the congregation. Special offerings can also be seen as a reflection of our capacity to join together to make such a witness.
The very act of lifting such concerns up to God in prayer is to acknowledge our connection with them. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are committing our self to be part of God’s work to fulfill the divine purpose on earth. For us to despair that the world will ever change is to deny God’s ability or willingness to answer the prayer that his son taught us to pray.
The counter-cultural message of the Christian faith is that a critical part of salvation is in discovering our true self through our relationships. The incarnation reveals that our faithfulness to God is expressed in the context of the finite time and physical reality of our world. If, as Genesis suggests, we were created in the image of God, then as God found expression through the relationships made possible through creation, do we reflect that image of the Divine through relationships as well.
The challenge of narcissism is the discovery that we are not the center of the universe. I am part of a matrix of relationships and life does not center on me. That does not mean that I should be a doormat and allow myself to be walked on. Jesus is never depicted as a doormat. Jesus knew who he was and remained true to the image of God within himself but he also came not to be served but to serve others. As was true of Jesus, so you are an important part of something larger than yourself. Within the confines of our finite reality, that truth is reflected in how we relate to family, neighbor, church, denomination, and world. We are connected.
To belong to the Body of Christ is to recognize that connectionalism in the context of our loyalty to, or worship of, God. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Romans 12:4-5. The Body of Christ, much larger than any one congregation, is the laboratory in which we experiment with how to live out those relationships that finally are to be lived out in the world that God loves. To abandon the laboratory is to cut ourselves off from the sustaining relationships that teach us how to live reflecting the image of God in the world.
The journey of faith is centered around relationships. To paraphrase Jesus’ summary, we are to love God and love our neighbor as our self. What we discover is that we are ennobled when we are part of something greater than our self. An athlete finds meaning in being part of a team. A person in the military finds meaning in serving his or her country. We find happiness in having good friends. In the Christian faith we speak of being part of the Body of Christ. The message of the Scriptures is predominantly in the plural. At the root of salvation is a healing or reconciliation of relationships with God and neighbor.
Yet loyalty to something larger than yourself can either give your life meaning or can devolve into idol worship. We can become too loyal to a sports team, company, or nation. Ironically, idolatry also finds its expression in the religious faith when we become too loyal to our perception of God, our understanding of Scripture, our image of Jesus, etc. So while commitment to something larger than our self can give life meaning and purpose, it can also be destructive, That is true for both the secular and the religious set of loyalties.
Think of loyalty as that to which we are accountable. Take the following 7 areas of your life and prioritize them according to whom or what you feel most accountable. SELF, FAMILY, EMPLOYER, NATION, CONGREGATION, THE LARGER CHURCH, AND GOD. Once you have placed them in priority order, write one sentence that is positive about such a loyalty and one that suggests a negative result of mis-held loyalty. None of them are bad in themselves and can give our life a greater meaning, but each, when inappropriately held, can become destructive. There is a sense in which each of these loyalties challenge the others and can help us maintain a balance.
Given the anti-institutional bias of our society, it may be important to re-examine what we mean when we as Presbyterians, and many other denominations, speak of ourselves as being a connectional church. Too often people hear that term in the midst of judicial questions with respect to property or ordination issues. There is a sense in which even the most independent of congregations, even one who claims to be a community church, is part of a connectional church. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and therefore confess ourselves to be a Christian, we become part of what the Bible calls the Body of Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, “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 the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews, or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
We can’t escape that reality by saying that it was different in the early church. As he says in 1 Corinthians 11:17ff, “Now in the following instructions i do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. for, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.”
The truth that we are, even when we want to deny it, part of a connectional church suggests that we need to explore more fully why God in
Christ created a connectional church and how we might recognize the strengths of that reality as a counter-cultural reality in our society.