hero default image

Along the Journey  |  

Is this a congregation?

The congregation’s formation as an expression of the Church happened before the close of the New Testament era in the first century. Jesus’ followers progressed from being a movement (“the Way”) to a variety of countercultural groups—both Jewish and Gentile—and then to a network of congregations that patterned themselves in similar organizations and structures (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37).

Early on, these varied groups followed the social and organizational patterns of the communities in which they were localized. However, with the distinctive identity of “Christian” and through a network of visiting Apostles and other spiritual leaders, a set pattern for worship and structure took hold. In the Pastoral Epistles, like 1 Timothy and Titus, we see evidence of a desire for organization and structure in congregations. Furthermore, in the Epistle of Clement in the first century, we see the beginnings of organized offices for congregational leadership in the specific mention of the offices of bishop and deacon. A clear apostolic hierarchy is in evidence by the second century in the writings of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. In his letters to the churches in Asia Minor and Rome, he mentions specific church offices and stresses the necessity of hierarchical obedience to bishops.

The effects of culture, modernity, and post-modernity continue to reshape the congregation as an expression of the Church. The much-bemoaned decline of denominationalism and slipping loyalty to religious authorities of position and office continues to shift the focus to local congregations. Furthermore, the continuing influence of parachurch groups and religious organizations that compete with both local churches and denominations for resources and member loyalty is yet another development that continues to challenge former assumptions of everything from what a congregation is supposed to provide to what it means to be a loyal believer and a “member.”

The contemporary congregation is an expression of a religious stance driven by cultural values and mores so much so that it may be more accurate to think of a congregation as a bounded relationship system shaped more by culture than by theology. What constitutes a congregation may be found more in the style of attachment or affiliation that individual members have than belief, doctrine, theology, or even tradition. These churches all exhibit a propensity toward an individual-expressive style of religious attachment. This style of affiliation is what sociologist Penny Edgell Becker called “the paradigmatic mode of religious commitment for white, middle-class Americans.” [1]

Consistent with America’s efficient tendency to export products and ideas, Becker believes that this style of affiliation is not only becoming evident outside of middle-class America but may become more prominent across the religious landscape.

[1] Penny Edgell Becker, Congregations in Conflict. From >The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Along the Journey