Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Reimagining: The End of the Beginning

Zak Carroll

Trying to summarize the past eight months of dialogue and discernment is a fraught task, let alone trying to accurately the perspectives of six other group members. I am sure that Reimagining Church was a different experience for each of us: the five lay members of the working group; the senior pastor of the church; and myself, the student facilitator. Yet, we found a way to bridge our various perspectives into three key themes. These themes were not intended to be dogmatic guidelines for practice, but rather the convictions of several invested members of the church who went through a process of guided discernment. These themes are not programs or specific instructions for how to do church. Instead, they reflect, as best as we can tell, the core of who First Congregational Church of Branford and the sort of church that it wishes to be continually formed into.

The first theme is Authenticity. In a church spanning nearly four centuries of history, it is an imperative to be honest about where the church has been and what the church currently is. For instance, FCCB was once the only church in town, the centerpoint of civic authority, and the presumed place of worship for new members of the community. That history is an integral aspect of FCCB’s story, and it cannot be ignored, especially those parts that are beneficial and continue to reap rewards. It is even more important, though, to acknowledge that FCCB today is different than FCCB in the past; it has less members, it occupies a different communal civic status, and it has been through a period of ups and downs in the last decade. To be authentic is to embrace these new aspects of FCCB’s identity, respecting the history and heritage of the many iterations of the church in the past and looking forward to the ways in which the current identity can fuel news ways of spreading God’s grace and love to people who otherwise would not experience it.

The second theme is Inclusivity. Through a process of Godly conviction, membership loss, and discussion, FCCB has decided to be a place that welcomes in all members of the community - regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity and gender orientation, or past spiritual history. The church might have existed for life-long members in the past, and it certainly exists for those members in the present. However, it also exists for those who have been cast out of other traditions, who are looking for a new start, or who never even considered themselves religious.
The third theme is Transformational Service. The church has a history of creating service and outreach programs that meet a unique need in the community, to the degree that the programs become so successful that they spin off from the church into their own non-profits. For the church to continue to provide that sort of unique care and value in the community, it needs to continually be asking, “Who in our community is getting left out, and how can we find ways to love and care for them?”

Ultimately, that is what these themes are: grounds for questioning. The reimagining process works when it is a path of discernment that begets questions and steps of faith. It is from those questions, and even sometimes from steps of faith that turn into programmatic failures, that God’s Spirit moves through us in new and life-giving ways. After a year with the wonderful members of the FCCB working group, I have no doubt that they will interrogate every aspect of their faith practice and FCCB’s life through the lens of how it is being Authentic to the church community present, Inclusive of those throughout the community who desire spiritual siblings, and Transformational in its approach to Service.