Editor's note: A version of this reflection originally appeared on Matthew E. Bolz-Weber's blog.
In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we like to say there are three expressions of the church: the congregation, the synod and churchwide.
Despite the natural inclination by many people to think that churchwide is more important than the synod, and that the synod is more important than the congregation — or even, perhaps, the inclination to think exactly the reverse — the ELCA goes to a lot of effort to emphasize the equal importance of each expression of this church and to communicate that different types of ministry happen by way of each of these expressions.
And while I don't disagree with what the church says about these three expressions, I believe we're painting an incomplete picture. It seems we've left out a fourth, arguably more important, expression of the church. Maybe we've left it out because it's not part of the institutional structure, but that doesn't make it any less significant or important.
The expression I'm thinking of is the household. As much as church leaders seem to try to elevate our impact or importance for faith formation, ultimately people spend exponentially more time in the household (family) than they do in the church (and especially the church building). I'd even argue that pastors' kids (who sometimes have to spend evenings at the church building while pastor-mom or pastor-dad participates in meetings) spend more time in the household than in any other iteration of the church.
I'm at least as guilty as anyone else, but I wonder why we spend so much time and energy on congregational (or synodical or churchwide) infrastructure, or even on ministry, when we spend relatively so little time and energy on supporting faith formation in the home.
What would it be like if we modeled and practiced faith-filled conversations in the congregation, bringing generations together (instead of always separating by age groups) so we could learn to talk to each other and learn to listen to each other?
What if we created activities: movie nights, craft activities and church work days that were intentionally intergenerational, and that would get people talking with elders and youngers they wouldn't otherwise get to know?
What if we introduced long-distance grandparents (those whose grandkids are far away) and long-distance grandkids to relationships that have the potential to surprise everyone?
What if we did all of these things with the goal of intentionally encouraging those same kind of activities and conversations in the household? And what if we sent every household home with a copy of the Small Catechism (you know, that pamphlet Martin Luther wrote so parents could teach their children the faith in the home) and instructions on how to use it?
What would it be like to talk about four expressions of the church? It might not change anything — but it might start to change the faith of the households in our congregations.
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