Monday, February 6, 2012

My Dream Church

 I have portraits hanging in my dining room of each of my three sons and their wedding ceremonies. Those are precious memories of special days. In every wedding I’ve ever witnessed, the couple believes their love will endure a lifetime and everyone else in the room certainly hope and pray it does. But those who have been married long enough know two things: Most marriages today don’t survive and those that do have had seasons when they almost didn’t.

Lately I have noticed an increased number of newspaper articles highlighting marriages that have lasted 75 years. The newsprint portraits now show weathered faces that glow with their own glory in having weathered storms that potentially could have sunk their marriages. Inevitably, the question is asked, “What is the secret to your long marriage?”

Usually their answer is not very secret. Most married couples already know what’s needed to survive and thrive in their relationships. It’s just very hard to do.

I think churches have similar portraits of hope when the doors first open. And they have similar journeys of crisis seasons and sadly, often a death to dreams. As I’ve encountered or heard stories from friends of troubled “Brides” (an appropriate metaphor for the Church for this post), I can’t help but envision a dream church. Then I have to remind myself  there is no such thing as a perfect church. It’s funny though. I think every church plant thinks they have found the secret to a successful church.

Like a marriage, it’s not how well you have built the house or how effectively and efficiently you operate the household that matters. And if the glue that holds the home together is a strong central (pastoral) figure, it inevitably leads to disaster since that person will not live forever. No, the strength of the house lays in how well its members navigate the real stuff of relationships – at every level, in every sphere.

As I am contemplating my dream church, I am trying to picture what it looks like. What values frame its mission and ministry and inform the relationships present within the community? I want to explore some possible responses.

I love metaphors and if there is one image that pervades my thoughts, it is the “table.” The church I am imagining creates tables and invites others to sit at them. Tables are for talking, for listening, for planning, for creating, for prayer, for learning. In essence, relationship begins at the table. (And if there’s food, it’s even better.)

Here are some possible “tables” I imagine in my dream church.

TABLE #1: The Lord’s Table

This table is in the center of the room. It is the beginning point for all the other tables. It is more than just the experience of reenacting the Last Supper. The sacrament continuallly reminds the participants that this table is what forms and informs the community. It is the place of costly redemption, of sacrificial love, of holy communion where all of us share a poverty of spirit and meet Christ.

TABLE #2: Storytelling

At this table, every person is treated as a story that is waiting to be told. And everyone else is on the edge of their chairs because they can’t wait to hear it. No one interrupts. No one offers advice or opinions or anything. Only whispers of “thank you.” Never judgments. Each one knows they have been gifted with a storied soul, a treasure to be kept safe. The table of stories is a table of knowing, the place where one feels known and embraced.

TABLE #3: Diversity

This table is the place where we may disagree with each other but instead of arguing, we work hard at understanding each other. It can get intense at times because we allow space for passion. We come to the table prepared with understanding the arguments from varying perspectives and beliefs so that we can participate in both intelligent and passionate discussion. But the goal is real understanding rather than winning or changing. Which means we overlap with Table #2 and include our stories and how we got to our beliefs, assumptions and values in the first place. We are honest so that the other can understand how their differing values impact real, live people. It's a safe table where we can voice what we really think. It's a table that encourages openness to the possibility of change rather than cemented convictions. It's a table where people value understanding the other more than being right. And they seek the expression of humility that says, "I may be wrong." 

TABLE #4: Freedom in Christ and Unity of Spirit

The participants at this table are committed to maintaining the tension between the freedom each person has in Christ and the unity created by the Spirit that binds us to one another. Freedom means we each search the Scriptures to come to our convictions and this may result in different interpretations. But that’s okay. Unity means we respect the imago dei in each person and trust the Holy Spirit who dwells in them to do the work of growth, maturity and understanding. Freedom means we don’t herd people into predetermined roles but give them space to explore the gifts of the Spirit. Unity of Spirit means we pay attention to the movement and anointing of the Spirit because God is not one to be boxed in. Since the Bible is full of exceptions to the “rule,” the participants are careful not to play God or suppress the Wind.

TABLE #5: Mutual Submission

Mutual submission is grounded in Galatians 3:28 at this table. Everyone is equal--equally valued and equally released to carry out their calling. There are no special seats here or at any head table which is never set up in the room anyway. Leadership is flattened, not hierarchal. Roles are determined by gifting, not gender. Everyone has a voice and every voice is important and invited. Authority is in Christ alone as the Head of the church who has spoken in Scripture and still speaks through the Holy Spirit. Submission is mutual as everyone competes for the lowest seat while still rising to their calling in Christ.

TABLE #6: No Condemnation

This is a table that I want but have no idea how it can happen, mainly because I’ve never seen it. This table requires a combination of all the tables above. It’s one that welcomes anyone who feels condemned by the church. But those who come create tension and discomfort for those who have often done the condemning. IF they come, they challenge our notions of right and wrong especially when Scripture is applied like a stamp on a document that says “UNBIBLICAL” or “GO TO HELL.” IF they come, they bring all their anger and pain from how they have been treated. IF they come, they ask to be accepted for who they are. Acceptance is not the same as agreement. Acceptance is the fruit of a heart that repents of condemnation.

I think I stop with these six tables. I’m sure there are more I can think of but perhaps you can help me out with responses to these two questions:

1)  What would you add to the table descriptions above?
2)  What other tables should I consider for my dream church?


  1. Really lovely Harriet. The wedding/marriage metaphor works so does "the table." This is radical hospitality. Rooted in the love of God and the unflinching welcome of God's grace to all. I have experienced EVERY table here. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it's like coming home.

  2. I've often thought about how even the architecture of our church buildings communicate something very powerful about what we believe about the church.