No matter how you dress it up...
A Taize Type Chant on Micah 6:8

Congregational Imagination

As we've been living in the midst of house renovations, I've been thinking about congregational imagination. A congregation's imagination is reflected in many ways: how it shapes and reshapes its worship space, how it shapes its re-telling of biblical stories and its own congregational stories, the kinds of people who are welcomed and who feel at home, and the kinds of cultic practices it considers normative. 

I had a pretty clear sense of the congregational imagination of the church in which I served as music director for over twenty years. The congregation had a sense of the dramatic, and this was reflected in its development of the worship space. It loved to take unusual angles in its retelling of biblical stories; it was not unusual to have worship feature a potter's wheel in the centre of the sanctuary and liturgical dance, though not frequent, was welcomed as part of normal (rather than “special” or “different”) worship.

I am now in a new congregation, and am still in the process of learning the scope of its imagination.

The congregation's imagination cannot, of course, be completely separated from that of its leadership. There is a kind of conversation that begins early in a pastor's (or other leader's) tenure, as congregation and pastor listen to one another, and develop what you might call an “image bank”, that treasure house of story, metaphor, symbol, visions and images with which it expresses its communal identity.

Dorothy Butler Bass, in “The Practicing Church” (Herndon Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2004) writes (p.5) that “…the pastoral imagination works in tandem with…the congregational imagnination, the imagination of God's people in community.”

She says (p. 47) that “(f)or their entire history, Christians have invented, recreated or adapted traditions when old patterns no longer hold sway. Thus, fluid re-traditioning is an expression of the theological imagination, as biblical tradition is lived out in community, and is an ancient practice of faith that connects Christians to their ancestors.”

Part of what allows a congregation's imagination to develop is trust; trust between its leaders and the people, and among the members of the congregation. Trust is key, since imagination is a risky thing: it invites to see things differently, to try different ways of acting, and to be ready to see that God is “doing a new thing” in its midst. I have seen congregational imagination flourish and develop, becoming richer as it grows; I have also seen it shrink and wither as trust erodes and a congregation becomes fearful, wary weary, and finally unable to imagine its future or re-imagine its past.

One area of congregational imagination that fascinates me is how a congregation plays. In a way similar to watching a family at play in its own home (renovated or not!), how a community celebrates when it doffs its ceremonial or denominational garb is often the congregation at its most revealing.