I’m working on a paper for my Comm Theory class in which I am explicating the term “congregation.” The assignment is, basically, to delineate exactly what I mean by congregation. It’s been a challenging paper, and it has me asking some interesting questions.
First: who counts as being a part of a congregation? Am I a part of the congregation at 14th Street, which I haven’t attended regularly since I started College, but where I am still a member? How about at Centrepointe, where I never became a member, but participated in the congregational life for 3 years? What about now that I’m gone? What about Athens First where I’ve been attending for, oh, four weeks or so? In some sense, I think congregations are (and must be) inclusive. It’s anybody who wants to be and even some people who don’t. When you’re planning a worship service, it’s whoever’s sitting in the pews: faithful members, first time visitors, adolescents whose parents made them come.
The next question I’m trying to tease out in this paper is this: what does it mean to be a part of a congregational community? What are our obligations to each other? What is our role in worship? Sometimes, I think, the people-in-the-pews congregation are symbolic representatives of the whole congregation or even the church universal. The confession of sin and assurance of pardon goes for everybody, not just the people sitting there. When the congregation makes promises in the liturgy of baptism, it is less that the actual persons standing there (often including out-of-town relatives, visitors, people who may never come back….) are promising to uphold the family, it is that we are speaking on behalf of the whole community, or of that families future communities, if they move someplace else.
So it turns out that what constitutes a congregation and a religious community is more complex than I had first guessed. But it is an exciting project to figure it out, too.