Congregations are made up of real people with strengths and weaknesses, tendencies, levels of Biblical understanding, etc. We should not be surprised, then, to find that congregations have their own “character,” an identity that is formulated to some degree by each member and what they bring to the group (or what they detract from it).
Some congregations have become stagnant, comfortable with the status quo and satisfied to “keep house”; i.e., maintain a weekly and/or yearly routine of meetings and classes that give an illusion of industry (cf. Rev 3:14ff). Suggestions of change and improvement are met with resistance, even resentment, by those who realize that change will require more effort than they want to give.
Other congregations are known for their depth of knowledge. They have solid, challenging classes; sermons that inform and inspire. They are not easily swayed by false ideas and wolves seeking unwary, vulnerable sheep (cf. Rev 2:2-3, 6).
Some churches have a military complexion. They are located near a base and are comprised of those with short term local presence. Some groups are predominantly elderly. Some are urban and encounter a different clientele than a country church. The urban church likely has more evangelistic opportunity by virtue of sheer numbers and the wide variety of people who gravitate toward big city entertainment and jobs.
Further, congregational character changes as the membership ebbs and flows. The youthful, vibrant congregation might become the tired, aged congregation over time. The stagnant congregation may have an influx of energetic Christians who light a fire under it and get it moving in the right direction.
So, how would you assess the congregational complexion of Centreville? Granted, only the Lord would have perfect knowledge of this, for He alone knows the hearts of all. But a tree is known by its fruit. What is readily observable about our collective identity?
Centreville is at peace. No congregation will be completely devoid of friction and unrest, for none of us practices the faith perfectly. But in the last several years Centreville has been free of selfish ambition and the controversy and strife it engenders. And I love to tell that to others. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps 133:1). Amen! That is something we all should aspire to and protect, for there are too many congregations that have been ripped apart by ungodly, unbrotherly attitudes. Zeal has been destroyed along with its reputation in the community. (I know of a church facing a potential lawsuit by a former attendee [not even an actual member] who feels he was wronged by the elders and preacher over serious allegations of immoral behavior. What do you think that does to the morale of a congregation?) Peace is to be treasured and maintained.
Centreville serves one another. A complete list of thoughtful and humble acts of service cannot be compiled (not to mention instances that are not even public), but here are a few: graduation quilts/celebrations; moving assistance; almsgiving; meals for the sick/new mothers/etc.; taking in boarders; opening job opportunities; sharing advice and expertise; babysitting … the list goes on. We often cite Ph 2:5ff: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant …”. But citing a verse is not practicing a Christian value. Many at Centreville practice this diligently. If someone complains that their needs went unmet by this congregation, I am immediately suspect of their own aloofness, lack of engagement and/or negligence in communication. Centreville’s predominant character is to serve. Having said that, there is more to be done.
Centreville has remained stable through various changes. In the past few years several factors have affected the membership roster at Centreville: job changes, retirements, graduations, the startup of the Haymarket congregation, influx of new members, baptisms, etc. To some degree these are common issues that affect all congregations, but we live in a particularly volatile job market. We have another wave of membership losses coming through the end of the year. But with all these changes, Centreville has historically remained stable and unified.
What creates this stability?
Allegiance to Christ. All congregations will have peripheral weaknesses, but there must be a core of genuine faithfulness to Christ. And we must constantly work to expand that core, for the more we love and serve Christ, the less we will have reason to clash with each other.
True Knowledge of Scripture. I know of another congregation that is having internal difficulty, and a primary cause is a lack of Biblical knowledge. The preacher was flagrantly deceitful about his personal situation; the church “voted” to do away with Sunday night worship regardless of the challenges this presented to a member with medical issues. It seems from the outside that they are incapable of considering a problem and coming to a Scriptural and compassionate conclusion. Such ignorance will eventually destroy a congregation.
Genuine Love for Each Other. There are numerous exhortations in the NT to love each other, such as: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God” (1 Th 3:12-13). If we love each other as we should, potentially troublesome situations will be nipped in the bud before they flower into strife.
As we look ahead we must always be aware of personal and congregational vulnerabilities to Satan’s influence. He knows how to exploit us, to provoke pride or resentment, to cause us to turn on each other through competitiveness, inconsideration, gossip, etc. He knows how to turn our attention away from Christ to ourselves.
But our heritage has been one of strength and peace. As long as we remain focused on the Lord and what He intends for us to be and do, this will continue regardless of the alterations of the congregation’s complexion.