Fifty years ago — even 20 years ago – asking “What kind of congregation shall we be?” referred to denominational affiliation. The answer was: “We shall be Lutheran– or Presbyterian, or some other such tradition.” The only decision people made was, “What flavor Christian are we?” Honestly, most congregations were just different versions of vanilla – not much difference from one place to the next, other than the Lutherans liked lutefisk and stuff like that. The world was homogeneous, so the church was homogeneous. Today, when we ask “What kind of congregation shall we be?” it is a much more complicated process to come up with an answer. Today there are limitless ways of being a Christian congregation; limitless varieties in being Lutheran or Methodist. The question is, “What kind of congregation shall THIS congregation be?”
Over the last four years we have worked hard, sometimes tediously, to define identity. We spent long discussions about the values that define our actions as a community. We spent more time defining the core beliefs we hold that make us Christian in this particular place and time. We have studied our needs and challenges. We have surveyed the population and the way other churches are being church around us. The time has come to define how we answer the question of identity.
We have learned that there are many, maybe most, congregations who have struggled to answer the question about identity and given up. They hope that by staying the same, keeping the doors open, they will endure the changes, which they believe will fade. We don’t think that is realistic.
We have discerned that there are churches around us that want to define themselves by saying who is welcome and who is not welcome. We don’t think that describes us. In fact, we have discerned that in our community we need to ask who will welcome the folks who don’t always fit?
We have discerned that there are lots of options for people to find worship and programming that reflects the popular culture around us. Many places specialize in worship that is “new and innovative.” We have come to ask “Who welcomes the people who seek worship in an ancient key, in ways that honor ancient traditions and embrace a relevant message of good news at the same time?”
It seems like there are lots of places who have tuned their message to reach those who are already looking for Jesus, but what congregations try hard to reach the hard to reach, like those who are 20-30; like the less affluent; like the folks who are hungry for food and spiritual connections? Who has open arms for the people Jesus loves – no matter who those people might be?
We believe that the Des Moines metro area, and specifically Ankeny, don’t need another cookie cutter attempt to give people what they want in the spiritual marketplace. Nor does Ankeny need another congregation committed to preserving its past; to institutional “survival” that ultimately leads to death. Looking at our values, beliefs and our unique identity as the people of God, we propose that Ankeny needs:
A congregation that proclaims a message of God’s love and grace revealed in Christ and his people in a way that seriously welcomes those who have been unwelcome for a host of reasons; loves those who are hard to love; embraces those who have been beat up by the church’s judgmental words; ministers to those who have been, for whatever reason, dismissed disenfranchised, disaffected by, and become disgusted with the church because they did not find good news.A congregation that honors the ancient traditions of the church while it presents them in ever new ways, to an ever-changing community;
A congregation where people can find not just the latest spiritual fads, but find a path to spiritual growth and maturity that touches their broken places, offers meaning and hope for every day, and roots people in a faith that is both ancient and future.
A congregation that becomes known as THE place that doesn’t just care about the hungry, but makes a difference in their lives, locally, national and globally and offers those in need the opportunity to be welcomed and grow in faith and the ability to live each day;
A congregation that passes on the faith to a new generation in a way that makes a difference in the lives of the participants and the whole world;
A congregation that cares more about growing disciples than about growth in membership numbers;
A congregation that equips people to live and serve in the congregation and the world according to their gifts and skills instead of the congregation’s demands;
A congregation that embodies the open arms of Christ on the cross in all it says and does.
To become this congregation, we face many challenges. We will need to do more than survive to thrive as a missionary outpost for the reign of God. We need to embrace our gifts and God-given identity to then provide a place that offers its own unique contribution to this community.
How does this vision strike you? What do you think about the conclusions reached in our long course of discernment?
In the next and final installment of these reflections on our common vision, we’ll address the challenges and immediate plans we have outlined to move ahead to be the Open Arms of Jesus Christ in Ankeny, Iowa in 2015. Stay Tuned!
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim