Palm Sunday: Built on Community

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I believe it takes a congregation to raise a Christian. My PhD dissertation argues Christians of all ages are formed in a faith community. Think of your church family like a foundation. Each of us is built upon the foundation provided by the community, past and present. Here is an excerpt from my dissertation that talks about the importance of participating in a faith community and learning the story upon which our faith is built:

Foster claims “the congregation is the context, and its mission…the impetus for Christian religious education.”[1] He points to the critical need to build community in our congregations. One Christmas Eve he noticed several unfamiliar faces in the congregation. When he inquired about these visitors, he learned they usually only came on Christmas Eve and preferred a larger church where they could blend into the crowd. They were not part of the community and, the pastor explained: “It is the only story they know.”[2] People flock to worship on Christmas Eve because the birth of Jesus is the only biblical story they know, but they have no experience of community and, therefore, no ongoing faith formation.[3]


Participation in a faith community is an essential part of our formation. On some level, individuals are responsible for their participation, or lack of participation, in worship. We cannot expect to grow in our faith apart from the relationships we develop at church. Foster claims, “community does not just happen;” it takes work and intentionality to build a community of faith.[4] Congregations must support individual and communal development in a community of faith that emerges from our narrative, the story that unites us and forms us.


Foster names four primary tasks a congregation must engage in to build community. First, the language we use as Christians is not always understood by those outside the congregation. It is imperative that pastors and leaders work toward a common language of word and symbol. Foster calls the “words, signs, images, symbols and rhythms” of our faith “building blocks to communication.”[5] Our language of faith shapes our identity through Scripture readings, congregational singing and prayer, creedal statements, and sacramental liturgy. More important than the words of our faith, it is the visual symbols and structures of time communicate the Christian story.


Next, Foster claims that the repetition of stories as they are shared, often in worship, is a key practice for building community. He also points out that children are particularly drawn to stories, often asking them to be read over and over again. Foster aptly notes, “young children know how stories should be told.”[6] Stories are meant to be repeated, memorized, recited, and acted out. They are not just words. They use sound, movement, lighting, and visuals. Stories of faith shape our understanding of who we are as the body of Christ. These stories connect the community across generations, young and old.


Third, building community requires the development of relational interdependence across generations. The church is faced with many cultural norms that work against intergenerational and intergroup relationships. Foster recognizes the need for relationships that value the many different gifts and graces, regardless of age, sex, race, or ability. Christian community, especially in worship, is one of few opportunities to cross the boundaries that divide us. Congregations must work against the culture to include all persons in the body of Christ.[7]


Finally, Foster believes we practice what it means to be a community by how we live. He notes the influence of repeated practice on “the quality of a congregation’s worship and mission.”[8] Practice happens both in our individual lives and in corporate worship. The practice of proclamation, prayer, singing, and sacrament shape a community of worship. The personal practices of justice and mercy is part of a worshipful lifestyle. Christian practices are the rituals that shape our Christian habits, attitudes, and identities. They also develop our relationship with the rest of the community.


The foundation of our faith is the community that forms us as Christians. This week, we remember that the community cannot be silenced - even the rocks can't be silenced! They are always present, always part of us, always shouting “Hosanna!” The inescapable presence of community is the foundation on which our faith is built.

 

[1] Foster, Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 13.

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Ibid., 62-67.

[4] Ibid., 68.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 72.

[7] Ibid., 74-75.

[8] Ibid., 77.


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