Mariclair Partee: Reflections on Congregations in the 21st Century

“What will religious congregations look like as the 21st century progresses?”

The students who gathered at Seabury Western in June to contemplate this question came from all over the country; from parishes, cathedrals, schools, judicatory staff; as priests, deacons, lay leaders; but primarily as a group of concerned Christians who love God and want to continue spreading the Good News for another 2000 years. It would have been easy, given the tenor of most conversations on the future of mainline denominations these days, to enter into our discussion from a place of fear or resignation. Yet instead of anxious voices, I heard hope. Instead of resignation, I heard energy and passion. Instead of fear, I heard the voices of leaders of the church in the 21st century empowered by the premature predictions of the demise of the mainline churches we love and serve, inspired by the work of missional leaders who are proving that another way is possible, and determined to be a part of the rebirth taking place every day, in every gathering of Christians.

As we gathered in small groups over our week together, reflecting on reading as well as lectures by authorities and practitioners, we did the real work of 21st century faith. In the space of our conversations, we acknowledged the realities that many of us face declining commitment on the part of our members in the face of busy lives, budgets that don’t always add up, denominational structures that are sometimes a hindrance rather than a help, neighborhoods that have changed radically in the years since the cornerstones of our buildings were laid. And then we set about the work of God. In the face of perceived hurdles, we found freedom to abandon customs that had outlived their usefulness and started the long process of stepping away from the lionized vision of the Church of the 1950s, with its overflowing Sunday School classrooms and social club hierarchies. We realized we had already all of the tools that we need to live into God’s mission for the world. We have a Gospel of compassion and hospitality, our spiritual traditions give us models of discipline and discipleship, and our denominational histories give us a compulsion to serve our risen Lord in the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed.

I ended my week in Chicago refreshed, renewed, and on fire to put the things I learned into practice in my own congregation. Spending five days sharing worship, class time, meals, and bountiful discussion from diverse points of view with colleagues and specialists reinvigorated me for the work God has called me to do. I can’t wait to gather again in January, to hear about what fruit has grown in Ohio, Texas, California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and who knows where else from our time together engaging our imaginations and the skills that God has blessed us with to plot a future of congregations deeply rooted in spirituality, practice, Christian identity, and compassionate engagement with those outside our walls.

–The Rev. Mariclair Partee is canon for the ministry of the baptized at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, PA and a student in Seabury and CDSP’s DMin in congregational development program

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