I spend part of my days researching congregations, helping church leaders diagnose and respond to the social dynamics shaping their community. The work I do is grounded in the conviction that tending to what is happening on the corporate and systems level of congregational “life together” is more than a helpful-yet-tangential exercise. I believe that the gospel is inherently social. The gospel is inherently social. Click To Tweet
Many church leaders I work with are wrestling through a sense of dis-ease and disorientation because of the social and religious unraveling happening both inside and outside their congregations. This current moment of not knowing what the future looks like but knowing you can’t go back to business as usual is not merely a problem to solve. It’s a holy opportunity for following the Spirit of God into faithful, new forms of life not imagined previously. Leading into this liminal space requires reckoning with dynamics that extend beyond and beneath individual-level thoughts, desires, and intentions.
When I say that the gospel is inherently social, I mean that the announcement of the liberative and transforming love of God in Christ fundamentally is about divine healing that restores the possibility of communion: God with humanity and humanity with all creation. Jesus’ crucified, resurrected, exalted body—the content of the gospel—continues to take on flesh in the world by the Spirit in his social body, the church.
The announcement of the liberative and transforming love of God in Christ fundamentally is about divine healing that restores the possibility of communion: God with humanity and humanity with all creation. Click To Tweet
A major implication of this theological reality (among many other implications) is that the gospel aims toward what is happening between our bodies and also toward the systems and structures that organize our relationships.
Think of this space as your community’s “social architecture.” A few examples include dynamics like whose bodies are most visible in leadership, normative ways of Bible-talk about grace and sin, the age and socioeconomic status of the most active members, acceptable and taboo topics for discussion in small groups, or unwritten “scripts” that guide assimilation into belonging (more on this below).
All these subtle ways our bodies move in relation to one another, and all the ways social systems shape how we see and relate one to another, need divine healing so that they can be characterized by cross-shaped love rather than enmity and/or domination.
All the subtle ways our bodies move in relation to one another, and all the ways social systems shape how we see and relate one to another, need divine healing so that they can be characterized by cross-shaped love. Click To Tweet
This is why Paul asserts in Romans 12 that offering our body (including his church, the one body with many members) for transformation and renewal is the new logic that flows directly from Jesus’ saving work. Paul exhorts the churches in Rome to wrestle with the particular ways embodying the gospel sinks down into the social architecture of their life together—turning prevailing cultural dynamics like honor/shame and client/patron on their head, making way for mutuality, reciprocal love, and radical hospitality.
Emphasizing the social character of the gospel does not necessarily negate its personal character. Both are bound together and crucial for nurturing faithful forms of life together. Personal dynamics (e.g., inner transformation of the individual or acts of individual piety) are both constructed within and also carry forward social dynamics (e.g., how clerical authority is signified, or normative body movements during congregational song).
Learning To See What Is Hidden
Drawing the social aspects of the gospel into the foreground is important because these dynamics are often hidden, humming along and doing lots of work below the waterline of awareness. When leaders cannot recognize social reality despite its shaping impact, the decisions and initiatives leaders make often fail to address core issues animating (for good or bad) the life of their congregation.
When leaders cannot recognize social reality despite its shaping impact, the decisions and initiatives leaders make often fail to address core issues animating (for good or bad) the life of their congregation. Click To Tweet
I have worked with pastors who are investing in the necessary work of listening and responding to the Holy Spirit’s interior renovation on the level of their motivations and desires. This is irreducible for responding faithfully to complex contextual challenges. Yet those same leaders often find that the personal transformation they experience is not translating congregationally.
A lack of awareness of the social aspects of congregational life often leads to:
- Leaders defaulting to the same strategies for change but never seeing substantive transformation
- An ironic disconnect between a congregation’s aspirational vision and concrete practices
- Certain groups of people getting centered in congregational life and others marginalized (often on the basis of ethnicity, gender, age, financial status, etc.)
Recently, I worked with an organization that was thinking through its posture toward women in ministry. This organization ordained women to ministry by official policy, and leaders occasionally verbalized the institutional aspiration to see women flourish as clergy. Yet, they were hearing feedback from women clergy who were continuing to feel both disempowered and as though their presence was seen more as a threat and liability than a blessing to the organization.
Faithfully addressing this gap between aspirational vision and embodied reality meant understanding what was happening on the social and systems level of the organization. It would not be enough, for example, for organizational leaders only to reaffirm their abstract theological position about women in ministry or for individual leaders to express their personal intentions to support women, as vital as that is.
Taking the social aspects of the gospel seriously means examining the organizational leadership structures themselves. For this group, it meant getting curious about how gendered power dynamics might be shaping the conditions in which women were being ordained to lead. Taking the social aspects of the gospel seriously means examining the organizational leadership structures themselves. Click To Tweet
The organization needed not only to answer “why” they ordained women, but also explore what is revealed in questions like:
- What are the formative effects of our leadership structures on both women and men?
- Who designed the assimilation pipelines, and who were they implicitly designed to benefit most?
- What kind of cultural conditions and policies empower women with agency to lead, not just grant tacit permission?
- What is God both disrupting and renewing in what is revealed, and how do we rearrange our bodies (i.e., the social architecture of our leadership structures) to reflect the liberating and empowering love of Jesus?
How to Begin in Your Congregation
Understanding a congregation’s social architecture and what kind of shaping work those dynamics do starts with asking, “What constitutes identity and belonging in this community?” Framing my research with this question helps reveal the “structuring logic” that characterizes what it means to belong to a particular community.
Every community is characterized by embodied habits of thinking, speaking, and acting. These embodied habits are what those who are at the center of the community do to make them part of the group. They are what people do and say (or do not do/say) that create that sense of “normal.” Some habits are explicit, but many are implicit and unwritten. There is also a sensibility to these habits: they often just “make sense” to those most assimilated into belonging. This is why it’s called a “logic” and not merely “beliefs” (see again Romans 12:1 and the social logic that characterizes Christ’s body).
Every community is characterized by embodied habits of thinking, speaking, and acting. Some habits are explicit, but many are implicit and unwritten. They often just “make sense” to those most assimilated into belonging. Click To Tweet
Imagine a pub full of British football fans committed to their neighborhood team. As you enter that space, you would notice ways of dressing, joking, imbibing alcohol, bodily movements, or songs that characterize what it means to belong as a genuine fan. None of these embodied habits are formally written down, but if a person violates one of the norms (e.g., fails to signal verbal displeasure at an opposing player), the group will notice the violation and likely question whether that person truly belongs in the pub.
With all that in mind, one of the best ways to illuminate what constitutes belonging in your community is by listening to the experiences and voices of those who are “outside belonging.” These are people who struggle to understand and/or perform normative ways of speaking/behaving or who violate what it means to be a good member of your community.
Those outside or on the margins of belonging are often treated as exceptions or even threats to a congregation’s flourishing, but their experience can function as a holy angiogram, bringing into sharp relief the inner dynamics of the congregational body that are invisible to those at the center. This is why Paul centers the experience of “weaker members” to receive “greater honor” (1 Cor. 12). For Paul, the gospel faithfully embodied in a congregation’s social architecture necessarily requires identifying with their experience and adjusting the prevailing social logic accordingly. Those on the margins bring into sharp relief inner dynamics of the congregational body that are invisible to those at the center. This is why Paul centers the experience of “weaker members” to receive “greater honor” (1 Cor. 12). Click To Tweet
The point is not that everything revealed in your congregation’s social architecture is bad or even that one unhealthy part means the whole is bad (congregations are complex, and a multiplicity of dynamics can exist simultaneously). Rather, the point is that embodying the gospel faithfully means tending to what is often hidden—the social arrangements that shape who we are and how we are in relation one to another.
In this space the Spirit of God is drawing us into new, faithful forms of life together.