Religious denominations are fascinating to me. All are based on a similar foundation, yet have unique formal traditions. I have lived in multiple places, and have gotten involved with many different denominations. Learning the different belief systems has confirmed my belief in the New Church teachings, while making me curious about New Church structure.
Other church denominations I have experienced have consistency from congregation to congregation. Meaning that the programs in place in these church denominations span all congregations. Service structure, study materials, youth programs, mission trip programs, etc. all line up from church group to church group. So, if someone were to move to a new area and go to that same denomination church in their new town, they would know the structure they are walking into.
My observation of New Church congregations I have visited or attended is that they are more individual. Some congregations are trying new things, some are not. Some congregations are doing journey programs, some are not. Some congregations are formal, some are not. Some congregations have established youth programs, some have not. Some congregations have greeters, some do not. Please don’t misunderstand, my observation is that whilst congregations DO have individual structure, the structure varies, sometimes significantly, from one congregation to another. I can walk into a New Church congregation confident of the teachings I will hear, but unsure of what format I will see.
People like structure. I teach high school, and one of the pieces of advice the teachers are given at the beginning of each school year is “establish your routine and expectations from day one.” When the structure of the classroom is in place, the students feel comfortable to learn, grow and express. There are many ‘structures’ that are consistent throughout our entire school. For example, the cell phone policy, dress code policy, bell schedule, attendance system etc. The administrator’s job is to make sure that structures are in place to ensure the best possible environment for the classrooms. Other forms of structure are up to the classroom teacher. For example, my chorus classroom is run differently to an art classroom or a history classroom. The teachers job is to make sure that the students have the tools to be successful in the class they are in. The structure is the same throughout the school, but the students needs and the classroom needs are different from room to room.
To me, a church can function in the same way. Established routine and expectations when the members walk through the door give people a comfortable space to learn, grow and express. The whole denomination (like the whole school) can have systems in place that make the organization run smoothly. Service structure, study materials, youth programs, mission trip programs, etc. would fall in this category. The leaders of the denomination should make sure that structures are in place to ensure the best possible environment for the congregations. Other forms of structure can be up to the individual congregations (like the individual classroom teachers). For example, congregations where members live far from the church could have a monthly social gathering to bring everyone together, while a group where majority of members live near could do special projects to specifically serve their individual community. The pastors job is to make sure the members have the ability to be useful in the congregation they are in. The structure is the same throughout the denomination, but the members and congregational needs are different from place to place.
My “structural observation theory” has been forming over the past twelve years. During ten of those twelve years I have not lived near a New Church congregation. The other two years were spent with one year living where the New Church is ‘headquartered’ in Bryn Athyn, PA, and another one year with my parents and attending a NC congregation in Michigan. Unlike some young adults who take a church pause in their twenties, I always attended church even though MY church wasn’t near. So, I’ve spent time attending a Baptist Church, time attending a Methodist Church, time as a counselor for a group called Young Life and time in, for a lack of a better term, a praise band Christian church. My love of religious studies has grown as I have learned about different denominations, and I have made other pit stops along the way. My husband and I even recently went to six different churches on six Sunday’s in a row and compared and contrasted the structures and format we saw in each place. As nerdy as these “studies” may sound, all of these experiences truly have helped strengthen my New Church beliefs, while giving me time to make lots of observations, with denomination structure being of particular interest. What do churches do to make people feel useful and want to come back? Are we, the New Church, losing members by having a different identity from congregation to congregation? Can teachings alone carry our message, or would consistency in structure help strengthen our message? What can I do to help? Why am I so interested in this?
All of these thoughts are just observations from my experiences with a large variety of church denominations. What this time has led me to feel is that it doesn’t matter if church structure is formal or informal, as long as it is consistent and confidant. And also, it would be my dream that anywhere I move I could step into a New Church Congregation and know what I could expect. Hopefully this would include welcoming faces, specific programs for myself and my family to get involved with, a community where we are made to feel useful, and a service structure that is consistent with other New Church congregations.
For what it’s worth, these are just some observations I’ve had as a New Church girl in a non-New Church world. ☺