Hopeful Church

Building on a Blessed Community

Recognizing the Church’s True Center

by Graham Standish

Years ago I read a quote by the Quaker mystic, Thomas Kelly, that changed my ministry: “Yet ever within that Society, and ever within the Christian church, has existed the Holy Fellowship, the Blessed Community, an ekklesiola in ekklesia, a little church within the church.”

Like a great artist Kelly was discovered in death after being mostly unknown in life. Over the final three years of his life he gave a series of talks around the Philadelphia area that were collected and turned into his classic book, A Testament of Devotion, published in 1941.

Kelly spoke about the deep spiritual life and its transforming impact on Christian churches, saying that at the core of every church there exists a small, inner circle of prayerful, spiritually aware people who keep a church alive. They’re the true church center, not the leaders. Pastors and lay leaders can be replaced as the church marches forward because this Blessed Community holds the church in deep connection with Christ who lives at the core of the church. If the embers of this Blessed Community grow cold, the church grows cold. If the embers are fanned, the church transforms.

Fanning the Embers

My ministry and leadership were transformed as I became aware of how much we focus our attention on elders, deacons, board or committee members, thinking that they’re the center of the church. I was especially transformed as I became aware that deep within my church was a Blessed Community that lived in deep connection with Christ. Kelly says that they “may not have been effective speakers or weighty financiers or charming conversationalists or members of prominent families,” but instead “are found to be men and women on whom the dews of heaven have fallen indeed, who live continuously in the Center and who, in mature appreciation, understand our leaping heart and unbounded enthusiasm for God. And although they are not commissioned to any earthly office, yet they welcome us authoritatively into the Fellowship of Love.”

I knew them. They were the women and men who exuded authenticity and radiated light. When I visited them in hospitals, they cared more about my life than about their illnesses. When I spoke with them after worship, they cared more about how me and my family were doing than about how they were doing.

When a church loses, through death or dysfunction, those who have a flaming passion for God, the church’s pilot light goes out. How do we find them? They’re the ones in any church who genuinely and faithfully pray for people on the church’s prayer chain. You know it’s true when they say they are praying for you. They’re the ones who live in grateful awareness of God’s presence all around them and always seem to sparkle in this awareness. They’re the ones who have a deep wisdom that goes beyond any training or schooling. They’ve had difficult desert experiences in their lives that have revealed God’s blessings blossoming everywhere.

I realized that these are the ones we should attend to if we want to revitalize a church. If we can identify them and fan the flames of their embers, the church will come alive.

From Embers to Flames

Trying to fan their embers into flames early on in my ministry at Calvin Presbyterian Church, I gathered a number of them to create a weekly prayer group. I developed a healing prayer ministry with many of them so that we could pray for those struggling physically, mentally, or spiritually. I made sure that we praised their ministry as much as that of others.

Over time we created small groups for them and others to grow spiritually, developed monthly prayer vigils and centering prayer groups. We brought their spirits into the rest of the life of the church. And when possible, we invited those with leadership skills to become elders. We recognized that when those with a flaming passion for God and skill in leading became elders and leaders, they would help the church become a blessed church. I got to witness that core blessed community become a deeply blessed church.

We live in functional times where we often can’t be bothered to identify those who really keep our churches alive. It just doesn’t enter our minds. But if we can turn our attention to them and allow them to breathe life into our churches, we just might find that they will guide our churches to be churches of faith, hope, and love.

The Rev. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he leads their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program (www.ngrahamstandish.org).