Open Walls for Bridge-Building

Healthy congregations have normalized relationship-based peacemaking both communally and missionally. Roughly half of their agapé-love energies are directed inwardly toward church members and the other half of their agapé-love energies are directed outwardly toward people beyond the church. The justice passion to make things right is practiced within the Body of Christ, so that the outreach work of making things right is both authentic and corporate.

The Heavenly Jerusalem from the Apocalypse of Saint-Sever (11th century)

Healthy congregations, therefore, have porous walls that allow God’s peace-making love and right-making justice to flow both in and out. Walls are necessary to the extent that they identify a unique community; walls give a church a context for commitment and sustainability. But these walls must have openings that allow for a healthy give-and-take.  Ironically, these kind of walls make it possible for good bridge-building to happen.

Ultimately, the wider world looks into a church to judge its health according to the dynamics of love and unity (John 17:23). But the only way others can watch the church is if church walls are porous enough to see though. If they are too opaque, it conveys an ugly exclusivism. If they are too transparent, it conveys too much affinity with the world. The main issue, though, is that when others look in, will they see something worth watching, something compelling?

This perspective fits well with David Brubaker’s “Three Marks of a Healthy Congregation.” Healthy congregations…

    1. Have a Clear and Shared Center
    2. Have Clear but Permeable Boundaries
    3. Focus Outward Not Just Inward

Perhaps church walls that are porous and permeable can be likened to the gates of a city. Imagine a city as in the vision of the New Jerusalem with 12 gates, suggesting a healthy inside dynamic that can openly engage with everything outside.

The Twelve Gates of a Healthy Restorative Church*

    1. A culture of apology and forgiveness is normalized (naming regrets and hurts)
    2. Interpersonal reconciliation is explicitly taught and rhythmically promoted
    3. “Two or Three” level conversations happen often with supports (Matthew 18)
    4. Leaders model self-differentiation, remaining calm and present during hard conversations
    5. Disagreements are viewed as opportunities to strengthen understandings and relationships
    6. Strong Group immunity prevents anxieties from infectious spreading and triangling
    7. Spaces for lament, grieving and healing over difficult losses are readily created
    8. Members routinely “one-another” each other with acts of love, encouragement, etc.
    9. Word Care culture helps members to be caring in their listening and careful in their speech 
    10. Members gifted with peacemaking skills are identified as go-to listeners and facilitators
    11. Religious education integrates theological dynamics with healthy relational dynamics
    12. When problems feel too big, outside facilitation help is invited prior to major escalation

*Note: this listing pertains to the relational corporate health of a church body and not to every aspect of church life and mission. Clearly a healthy church tends to other matters as well, including worship, outreach, leadership, etc.  A healthy church is also attuned to racial reconciliation and responsive to all injustices.  Since love is the hallmark of Christian identity as described in the New Testament, the relational health of church members is viewed as being foundational to all other areas of church life and mission. Ultimately, a church’s outreach is as strong as its inreach.

by Ted Lewis (2020)

To keep a body healthy, you have to feed it well, maintain exercise, minimize stress, and get plenty of rest!  If it gets sick, don’t just treat the symptoms; strength the body’s immune system!

Healthy Congregation Resources

Lombard Mennonite Peace Center  in Chicago.  Workshops and trainings.

Healthy Congregations in Delaware, specializing in Family Systems Theory.

Center for Healthy Churches in North Carolina. Consultation, counseling, coaching.