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. ☺

About Catherine Lykins

Catherine (Steen) Lykins grew up in Michigan in the Oak Arbor New Church congregation. She and her husband, Rob, currently live in Atlanta, GA where she teaches high school chorus at a public high school. She loves her job and is deeply invested in the students she gets to sing with every day. Catherine also loves to run, sings with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, enjoys scrapbooking and often helps her husband fly his hot air balloon!

8 thoughts on “Observations

  1. This really struck a chord with me and I had to go complain to my Pastor (aka my husband) that the GC has no consistent message or meaning! And WHY is it that every time I attend a new GC congregation for the first time, I have to have this awkward “what do I do?” experience?

    Derrick informs me that up until the 1960s there was more consistency (at least in service structure) and that came from the fact that all congregations used those red liturgies. Then came the church camps etc.. and the consistent liturgy fell out of favor.

  2. Interesting and relevant – thank you. Yes, I believe that consistency and structure could help strengthen our message, acting as a form to support our teachings. For me, the church service is most important – a common liturgy (new blue one), a children’s talk and a strong 30 minute sermon is what I hope for. My expectations have been met in South Africa, England and Bryn Athyn, where I’ve lived or travelled. Second, opportunities to get involved in spiritual growth programs – the online materials from Outreach are evolving all the time and I’ve experienced how they can transform a New Church congregation. I have found that we slip a little when it comes to our welcome and getting involved in uses, but I’ve noticed we’re working on it and that it’s effective for encouraging people to return. Practices are changing in the General Church and it takes time for these directives to filter through to congregations – pastors play a vital role and were supported until recently, by the useful Ambassador Program. But it’s definitely happening! A final thought – as we members travel the world, it can be useful for us to step out of our comfort zones and share our particular passions to help other congregations raise the bar.

    1. Thanks Karin-

      I sometimes wonder if the differences from congregation to congregation stem from individuals who bring ideas to the table at their individual congregation. There are GREAT things happening in NC congregations throughout the world! But at least from what I’ve seen- the ‘things’ are often individualized from place to place. It would be fun to be in some sort of group who goes from congregation to congregation and puts together a report of all the great things. So when a congregation wants to start something new- they could look through the ideas for a starting point and not have to reinvent the wheel 🙂 Thanks again-

      1. I really like this idea. Ideally this is exactly the sort of thing that it would be valuable for the Central Office to do. I don’t think they are in a place to do this right now but I would like to pass the idea along, if you don’t mind.

        I wonder if there is a way for NCW to some variation of this? Create some sort of evaluation/recording standard and get some ladies in different parts of the world to look at NC churches in their region…Or something.

  3. This is an interesting observation to me. I like having the familiar songs, and the familiar order of service, but I think often whats made the biggest difference for me in terms of feeling comfortable at a new church or new service is if there is someone welcoming people and letting them know what to expect or do. The congregations with a lack of that have been the ones I’ve felt the most uncomfortable at least initially.

    I’ve also often wondered about a congregational approach though. One where there is a congregation led by a pastor and people choose to come to his church or not but he is in clear control, not the reverse where he has to meet the preferences of the congregation but is constantly moving from congregation to congregation and having to adjust and re learn, and may end up being a bad fit…I don’t know which one has better results or makes more sense, but there are elements of that individual approach which I prefer. But it would likely mean that every single congregation varies significantly from the others, which may not be a good thing.

    1. Hi Abby Dear, sort of a counter-argumant to congregationalism: I keep wrestling with this sudden thought of mine that the apparent apathy towards the GC and the individualist focus of the U.S. congregations is linked and if the GC is going to mean anything to people it will have to be willing to excersize some noticeable presense and not be afraid of having standards. Balance. Balance. Balance. It is a balancing act between the identity of the overall GC and individual congregation identities. Right now, in the U.S., the identities of the individual congregations have all the weight. No wonder so many people ask me “why should I be a member of the General Church? Why can’t I just be a member of my local congregation?” If there is no tangible presence of the General Cburch in a GC congregation it is difficult to see the value of that overarching organisation. which begs the question: are we stronger and better off with an overarching organization or as individual congregations?

      1. Hmm…that does make sense. I guess that I also don’t have a strong sense of attachment to what the General Church specifically gives me over my local congregation, and have questions about specific plans and policies at times.

        I also can definitely see the appeal of there being consistency from congregation to congregation. I wonder if just the change of knowing what the expected norm is across the board would bring connection between congregations because of that unity, as you say Eden. I could see that being a real positive difference.

  4. …Huh! I really hadn’t thought about this, much – at least, not recently (in recent memory!). I think it may have to do with my isolation from the rest of the NC world, these days. I haven’t noticed that different congregations *aren’t* similar, however maybe that’s because the ones I’m most familiar with are similar to each other and I haven’t visited many dissimilar ones, or because when I have visited other congregations, it was long enough ago that they were still similar.

    I appreciate that you’ve made these observations, Catherine – and some sort of congregation-hopping assessment group sounds like a terrific idea!! …I’ve gotta say, though, that our society is less traditional than a lot of NC societies, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, I think some consistency is vital — and perhaps the welcome received by the visitor is where it’s at (along with being handed an order of service, or having a page-number board pointed out, so that s/he can at least follow along?!) — however I would feel sad if we were told we had to return to the older orders of service or older songs which we find archaic and dirgy. :\ Y’know? And we’re a small society, we don’t have anyone between the ages of 12 & 25, so we don’t have a youth or young adult program, period. –But that’s not to say that there aren’t aspects that we *could* bring into sync with other congregations,…. I guess that’s where the assessment group would come in, to help us know what needs/can afford to be stream-lined. …Huh! Thanks for starting this conversation! 🙂

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