See below for my two previous installments and for the sources cited in this series.

A third understanding that emerged from these readings is that churches are complex organisms. Both intimate relationships and in-depth analysis are required to understand, function effectively within, and lead a church. Perhaps because I have served smaller, rural churches in an advisory, not pastoral, role, I have probably been somewhat slow in recognizing the complexity of the dynamics of even a modestly-sized North American church. The authors of Studying Congregations (1998) discuss the dynamics of local congregations and offer helpful approaches to understanding them. Van Gelder recognizes that “Local congregations are complex creations of the Spirit that require leaders to exercise sophisticated management and organizational skills to give direction to the work of the Spirit in their midst” (2000, 19). Consideration of the nature of the church must take precedence to its function, but its incarnational nature demands that we understand how the church operates on a practical level. The church is both a spiritual community and a social reality, the “communion of saints” according to the Apostles’ Creed. It is “a relational community because God is a relational God” (Van Gelder 2000, 50, 96).

Every congregation develops the characteristics of a subculture. Each has its own a “complex network of signals and symbols and conventions” (Hopewell 1987, 5 cited in Ammerman et al. 1998, 78). As such, the social sciences can be useful for understanding how a congregation’s theology, history, context, and make-up influence both the spiritual and social aspects of the congregation. As the authors of Studying Congregations point out, “Although your context does not determine your congregation’s commitments, it does provide the setting within which you must make your decisions” (Ammerman et al. 1998, 14).

Studying congregations, however, is not sufficient for understanding their function as communities created by the Spirit. Ministers must participate relationally in the life of the church, as interdependent members of the body of Christ, if they are to lead the church in embracing the mission and embodying the kingdom of God.