Tuesday, 29 November 2011

It takes a congregation

In a 1996 book Hillary Clinton challenged the rampant individualism of modern western society by forcefully pointing out that, in the raising of the next generation, we all have a part to play. That is true whether or not we are directly related to the children in question. A society where the more affluent focus only on their children, abandoing a wider commitment to community, will be much poorer in the long run.

In recent weeks at Knox we've been hearing the phrase, "it takes a congregation." It's a sort of tongue-in-cheek way of raising volunteers and donations of materials and time for the annual turkey supper: "It takes a congregation to serve a turkey." Yes, I know, you can read that in a couple of ways! Every year our congregation puts on a turkey supper with all the trimmings. Not only does it kick off the Advent season, it also raises a portion of the annual revenue. I realized this year, that although the revenue is the "presenting reason" for the supper it's not the main benefit.

As with many such events staged by churches and other not-for-profit groups, if someone were to do a purely cost-benefit analysis of a typical fund-raising effort the truth is that if all the volunteers were to contribute $50 or $100 directly, they would raise a similar or larger amount with only a fraction of the effort. Of course, in most fund-raising efforts, many of the participants couldn't afford that contribution. Furthermore, dinners, yard sales, auctions and the like, hopefully allow others to contribute to the host organization's activity. Put bluntly, it provides the charity with another revenue stream! As well, it raises awareness that the organization - church or otherwise - is alive and functioning in the community. If someone comes for supper and is favourably impressed, perhaps they'll return for group's primary activities - such as worship. And, who knows, you might rub elbows with a long-lost friend or a brand new one, sitting on those awkward chairs at those long tables!

For the organization itself - like a congregation - the primary benefit is not financial, even if some folk imagine that it is. If the event really succeeds, it's because it draws people together in a new configuration. People who move in different circles of relationship are now side by side. New relationships are forged as plates are filled or gravy is poured; as patrons are served and places re-set for the next guest. In this case, both our youth group and Sunday School turned out in goodly numbers to help, which I know impressed not only our visitors but also regular church goers who don't always see the kids and youth because of different activity schedules. Think about it: particularly in an urban/suburban setting, how often do the generations outside of a family gather together for a shared task? How often do the children, teens, middlers and seniors get together at all, much less in a way that benefits others?

Of course, all is not shangri-la - the church is, after all, a divinely-instituted body populated by very human subjects! Always there are those who would organize this or that aspect differently. But, overwhelmingly, I was struck by the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation. And, far more importantly, by the joy being shown by those who were doing the work. They were having fun together. There was gentle teasing of one another, laughter when two servers ended up at the same patron with a plate of food at the same moment and times of pause where folk connected in very simple, human ways. No, from a purely financial perspective it wasn't terribly efficient. But the benefits to Christ's community of an opportunity to be in service together across the generations would make the event a success even if it lost money.

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