Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 2:42-47) transports me to happy hour at a friend’s house last Friday, where a group of folks gathered in the back yard to enjoy good fellowship around a makeshift table with chips and salsa and various concoctions to gladden the heart. At some point in the conversation, one of the happy friends talked about a dreaded dinner she had to attend later in the weekend. The reason for the dread? She is a faculty member at one of the fine institutions of higher learning in our area, and they are at some stage of the periodic review for accreditation. She is part of the group preparing all the documentation to show how the university is faring. I’ve been in these kinds of meetings, and as far as I can remember, surrounding the drudgery of evaluation and assessment and quality enhancement with a spread of good food hardly makes it any more bearable. One bit of the accreditation process has always stuck with me though, the comparisons with peer and aspirant institutions. Whatever you were looking at – enrollment, salaries, graduation rates – you would create a set of peers to judge yourself by, and then you’d have some goals for improvement, and create a set of aspirant institutions, those you aspired to be like, to hold up for goal-setting purposes. Who would you like to be like, as a community, in three years, or five years? What are the benchmarks and indicators for evaluating progress toward your aspirations?
I’ve thought about this in church life. While we don’t have any accrediting agencies looking over our shoulders and forcing us to do the drudgery of NCATE or SACS reports, we do spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. Church folks are notorious for evaluating and assessing the quality of their faith communities by how well the church down the road is doing. Depending on your disposition (sunny or shady), you can always find some other church that will make you feel good or bad about yourself. The thing is, I think we’ve set the wrong benchmarks. We’ve created the wrong sets of indicators. I think this short passage in the early history of the church gives us our best look at an aspirant institution, complete with a set of benchmarks to shoot for in our quality enhancement plan. They sound and look so simple (which is one of the hallmarks of a great institution, making complex behaviors look simple). Any good strategic plan will keep the initiatives down to a manageable number, and the early community understood this. They focused on three things, and did these three things well: 1) they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, 2) they broke bread together in each others’ homes on a daily basis, eating and drinking and praying together with glad hearts, 3) they had all material things in common, selling their possessions and distributing the goods to the poor. And what did they get in return? The favor of the people, and the Lord added to their number daily.
As simple as these indicators are, they are amazingly elusive for churches today. Here are our aspirations, the book of Acts tells us. Devote yourselves to teaching and learning the Way of Jesus. Break bread in each others’ homes every day, praying together and enjoying each others’ fellowship. Let go of your material possessions, and share all things in common. When’s the last time a church included those three strategic initiatives in a planning process? When’s the last time the second chapter of Acts was really lifted up as our aspirant institution? We have to start somewhere, though, and being Friday, I look forward to another happy hour in the back yard of those same friends I visited with last week. There’s a birthday involved, so while we may or may not be breaking bread, we’ll be breaking cake. And we’ll have glad hearts. Who knows, the conversation may take a turn toward the teaching and learning of the Way of love. All things in common? Give it a few more Fridays.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on FB, Google+, Twitter, etc.