“Who are we?”Â This seems to be a very appropriate question during a time like Lent, when our church litergy points us in the direction of self-scrutiny and self-reflection.Â Today, nowever, I have more than an individual piety in mind when I bring up this question.
Â Who are we?Â If an entire church seeks an answer to this question, it becomes rather complex.Â And if we do this as a denomination, the challenge may prove insurmountable.Â Who are we?
Here at First Reformed Church we have spent the last few years developing our ministry in an unusual variety of ways – or so it seems.Â Our activities include providing temporary shelter for homeless men, warm meals to poor families, an Autism confirmation class, friendship with Jewish and Muslim neighbors, an annual lunchtime concert series for school children and elderly, a long range preservation projgram, and fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.
All this while we have searched together for authentic answers to some of the questions of our time: peace and war, life and death, the distribution of wealth, and the authority of Scripture were some of the themes.Â We have prayed, worshipped and discussed together, and we have used many, many committee meetings to chart a good course and keep our goals steady.
But here is the question:Â Does this great range of activites mean that we have invented ourselves under the glance of God?Â The question sounds almost blasphemous, doesn’t it?Â As if a church could ever invent itself!
Yet, the question is understandable at the same time.Â The way we understand “church” today is so very different from the great institution whose offspring we are.Â Gone are the days of predictable ministry, where a pastor’s daily life was marked by preaching, Bible Study and hospital calling.Â Gone are also the days of the unquestioned answers the established church could once disburse.
Instead, much of our daily ministry is built on unusual alliances, support from non-members, and the unpredictable gifts of those we commonly call the “godsends”.Â Is there any surprise when “church” today sometimes feels like a piece of art that thrives against the odds thanks to the ingenuity of a particular church family?Â You see, when portrayed this way, the question “who are we?” takes on new connotation.
To discover that we are not alone in this kind of circumstance can be very salutary.Â There are basically, two ways by which this discovery may be made.Â The first one is to look beyond the margin of our own plate and to ask what other houses of worship are doing.Â Our Lenten adult education series “Christianity for the Rest of Us” serves this purpose.Â Following a course of a book under this title by Diana Butler-Bass, we have set out to find our church’s marks of renewal in other mainline churches as well.Â In turn, we hope to qcquire a good deal of affirmation and certitude.
The other way is the path of history, as the past always provides a treasure trove of related experiences.Â Our newsletter is designed with this in mind:Â it is a chronicle of our life together during these years.Â But beyond this, a broader look at history can hardly be taken from the vantage point of one church alone.
This is where the denomination comes in .Â For this purpose, our General SynodÂ created back in 1966 a Commission on History (see the accompanying picture).Â It meets twice a year and reports annually back to the Synod.Â It provides the Synod with needed background information on many hot topics, and it administers our denomination’s Historical Series – sequence of now 54 boods on various historical subjects.Â If you are curious, check out our church library, as we own several of these.Â Since 2006 I have had the privilege of serving on this commission.
Who are we?Â I’m certain our answers to this question will become ever more interesting as time passes on.Â We share this prospect with many other great institutions of our time:Â Wheter your’s is the world of the U.S. Postal Service, ore whether your are employed by a hospital or New Jersey Transit, everybody has to cope with change and novelty, as our world grows increasingly smaller and, at the same time, more free.
It’s only that, sometimes, I feel as though these processes were accelerated here at church.Â In some regards, we are not behind our time, but quite a bit ahead of it.Â Or do you see many other places in this world where such a diverse array of people comes together voluntarily and in peace, mindful of the fact that reality is more than we can see?Â Yet this is true for us.Â So, apparently, this is who we are:Â forerunners of the new world.