Understanding Congregational Dynamics
In difficult times church leaders need to pay careful attention to congregational dynamics. On one level, a congregation is a complex emotional system, and changes to one part of the congregation also affect the rest of the system.
Difficult situations create stress on the congregation, and stress shows up in a variety of ways. Church leaders must learn to expect and recognize the symptoms of stress and understand that different people will react in different ways. Some may withdraw, unable to face the pain of the difficulty. Others may overreact and try to solve the problem too soon. Still others may complain about seemingly unrelated matters in an unconscious attempt to avoid the issue and divert the attention of the leaders.
Congregations in difficulty will find that their members are grieving. Grieving people tend to resist change because change always involves some loss. Therefore, they may want to hang onto familiar things even more than usual. So, for example, while introducing a new song at any other time might not be a major issue, during a difficult time it may be a volatile move. Leaders should be prepared for the resentment and even hostility that may come from frustrated parishioners. They need to remind themselves to remain as calm as possible, absorbing some of the anxiety of the system and thereby providing some immunity to the congregational body.
Often the troubling symptoms of the difficult time will become focused on worship, the major corporate activity of the church. Worship can become the congregational lightning rod, since it involves the greatest portion of the congregation all at once, and since it is so closely tied to people’s faith. Moreover, the term “worship war” has become so common that church members almost expect it to happen. It could even become the smokescreen that overshadows the real underlying problems of the congregation. So paying careful attention to worship is all the more important in difficult times.
Worshiping as the Body of Christ
That careful consideration should include a basic understanding of what the church is called to be and how it is called to worship. These matters are central to all congregations at all times, no matter what their situation, but are especially important in difficult times.
A helpful way to think of the church as it faces trying situations is to reflect on Scripture’s metaphors for the church. One that is often cited both in regard to the church and in teaching on emotional systems is that of a human body. The body is made up of cells and tissues and organs that all contribute to and sustain the body’s life. It has many different parts that are all necessary and that together make up something even greater than the whole. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul notes the importance of all parts of the body and their unique contributions. The emphasis in this passage is on the spiritual gifts of church members—some more obvious, others less so, but all necessary and important.
Another metaphor both for the gifts of the church and its web of relationships is a horticultural one. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit-bearing image appears also in Matthew 7 (“You will know them by their fruits”) and in Galatians 5 with the list of the “fruit of the Spirit.”
Both metaphors are fitting because the church is the body of Christ—a living organism. These images are helpful for understanding what happens to a congregation in a difficult time. When a person has a toothache her whole body hurts. If she loses her sight or her hearing, the activity of her entire body is affected. When a branch is pruned or shocked by frost the plant will react by working harder to heal the broken parts. Or it may shed them.
Similar reactions can be found in the living body that is the church. And worship may be the greenhouse or the nursery in which suffering plants can be brought back to health. The rituals of the liturgy may become “the leaves of the tree that bring healing to the nations” (Rev. 22:2). In worship we learn again to abide in the true vine—both by hearing the Word of God and reenacting its stories in worship. In worship we remember who we are as a community of baptized persons and we celebrate our redemption at our Lord’s Supper. In worship we receive the nutrients that feed our souls and give us life. And we recall God’s faithfulness as we seek to bear the Spirit’s fruit. Like plants that take in oxygen and put out carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis, so in worship we are in dialogue, in a reciprocal relationship between the creatures and the Creator.
Worship is so essential to the church that it rarely stops. When a church building is struck by fire, an alternative location to meet for worship is found quickly. The members of the worshiping body want to be together in times of crisis to comfort one another. Even congregations experiencing severe conflict still meet for worship, so it is the most appropriate venue for healing and reconciliation. And this is possible because in worship we recognize that we need to abide together and abide in Christ. As we pray and sing, offer lament and give thanks, hear God’s promises and dedicate ourselves to live for him, we remember who we are in Christ and are able to become one in him.