Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series on visiting and attending new churches. The first was Eugene Schlesinger’s “Things Fall Apart: Musings on Eucharistic Hospitality.” 

By Hannah Bowman

The last time my husband and I were looking for a church, we visited 17: six Episcopal, three Lutheran, two Orthodox, two Presbyterian, one Methodist, one Church of Christ, one Congregational, and one Roman Catholic. (But who’s counting?) What we learned — from the divine beauty of Orthodox worship, the tradition of a cappella singing in the Church of Christ, the hospitality of Hawaiian Methodists, who provided fresh flower leis to every visitor every Sunday, and many more varied pictures of congregational life — is that the most important thing a church can do in order to thrive is to discern and pursue its charism from the Holy Spirit.

Charism, a concept borrowed from monastic life, is a particular gift “by which [the Spirit] makes the faithful ‘fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the church’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 798). A Catholic monastic or religious community has as its charism “the distinct spirit that animates a religious community and gives it a particular character.

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What does the concept of charism have to offer Protestant Christians looking for a church in a pluralistic modern era, when the church is “by schism rent asunder, by heresies distressed”?

In today’s world, church shopping — visiting many congregations to find the right fit — is common, but everyone seems to hate it. For laypeople (especially young families) it’s hard not to feel commodified as aging and dying congregations try to rush you into membership to stop the decline of their numbers and pledges. For clergy, a procession of visitors who refuse to commit and longtime members leaving over minor conflicts and disagreements is a steady irritation. Developing a clear identity of the Church as ekklesia, the body of Christ called out of the world, seems impossible when churches are judged, and judge themselves, according to the standards of a capitalist and consumerist age.

This consumerism is driven home by parody videos like the Church Hunters series on YouTube, which use the format of the popular TV show House Hunters to mock the arbitrariness of decisions Christians make when choosing congregations. (Hint: it’s all about the style of music and how pretty the building is.) But consumerism is at work on the side of congregations too: for example, in “vision” and “mission” planning processes that resemble a corporate board room more than a church established by God, trying to develop a mission for the church inductively from the desires and goals of its members, rather than beginning with God’s revealed Word to the church. After all, what mission should a church find that isn’t rooted in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission?

The modern reality is that Christians have many choices when looking for a congregational home. This fact leads some to wish with nostalgia for a parish model that would require all people to seek the closest community to their neighborhood. But while such a parish model still exists in large parts of the Church of England (and various European countries), in the disestablished Episcopal Church in the United States it does not exist. And to try to impose such geographical inflexibility on the Episcopal Church today does not recognize the truth that not every congregation is a good fit for every Christian.

There is admittedly an element of selfishness in the decision to find a church or leave one congregation for another solely in order to meet your spiritual needs or preferences. But in a healthy community, members are supported by the community at the same time as they support it. Community life is not without its challenges, and a community should not be abandoned at the first sign of dissatisfaction — but if a congregation does not support particular members in their spiritual formation and ministry, then they should find another home.

Those in religious or monastic life are well aware of this tension between selfishly giving in to personal preference and finding the right community to contribute to. The religious life, like the state of marriage, is “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 423). And entrance into congregational life should be treated just as seriously.

The local congregation is the fundamental community through which we experience being members of the body of Christ, and we find our vocation as a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). Because our baptismal vocation is fulfilled in the community of the local congregation, the congregation functions as the equivalent of a “religious institute” or “apostolic community” (to use Catholic terms for religious/monastic life). Especially in a post-Christendom world, the call to corporate ministry is increasingly important as a constitutive principle of the local church. So, just as those called to religious life take seriously their discernment, we should take seriously the discernment of our choice of congregation. And just as monastic orders recognize different charisms that they have been given by God that aid potential members in their discernment, congregations also have been given particular charisms to share with those church shoppers who are called to join them.

What makes the idea of charism a better way of choosing a church than concepts of “mission fit” or personal preference?

Charism is a gift, not an accomplishment.

Fundamentally, a charism is a “[grace] of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 799). It is a gift from the Holy Spirit and not anything that the local church can produce from its own strength or strive for itself.

The particular mission of a local congregation or parish — its role within the larger body of Christ — is therefore to be received as a gift and something revealed by God. Rather than something to be deduced from the skills, capacities, and interests of the membership of the congregation, it is a grace to be discerned through prayer and engagement with God’s Word.

One place to look in discerning charism is in our current rite of baptism’s teaching on the traditional sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit : “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).

(Or as these gifts are named in the Rite of Confirmation in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness … the spirit of thy holy fear.”)

For some congregations, their charism is an inquiring heart, in a deep commitment to inquiry and study of the Scriptures. For some, their charism is courage in taking action for justice, or an emphasis on joy in welcome, or a mystagogic emphasis on encounter with the divine in reverent worship. Identifying ministry through the lens of the gifts of the Holy Spirit can help focus our efforts in line with what God has already provided.

But there’s another deep truth in the idea of a charism as a gift: the freedom to admit that not every congregation needs to have every charism. After all, St. Paul reminds us about spiritual gifts:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Cor. 12:4-7)

Charism is a vocation in which we participate for the sake of the whole Church and world.

Grounding the identity of a congregation in a charism from the Holy Spirit opens a new and liberating way for individual Christians to discern and distinguish fit with a congregation, by comparing its specific calls to ministry with our vocational discernment. There is frequent discussion in the Episcopal Church of the need to engage more actively in vocational discernment for laity, rather than understanding discernment as primarily a process for potential clergy. Identifying the charism of your congregation is a key element of discerning your vocation. Charism is a call to mission in a particular way, with particular spiritual gifts. How do your call to ministry and your spirituality align with the charisms of your congregation? Because discernment always occurs in community, identifying the charism of a community can be a helpful tool for identifying our calls — both where they fit into the charism of our congregation and where they don’t, and are clarified by the contrast.

But ultimately the specifics of charisms are less important than the reality of the mission they call all Christians into.

Charism is always consistent with a cruciform Church.

Because a charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it always derives its character from the identity of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ crucified. As Jürgen Moltmann writes, connecting the Spirit to the cross:

In the cross, Father and Son are most deeply separated in forsakenness and at the same time are most inwardly one in their surrender. What proceeds from this event between Father and Son is the Spirit which justifies the godless, fills the forsaken with love and even brings the dead alive, since even the fact that they are dead cannot exclude them from this event of the cross; the death in God also includes them. (The Crucified God [Harper & Row, 1974], p. 244).

A charism, which derives from the Holy Spirit, will always guide a congregation toward a more “cruciform” way of life and ministry, because every true charism points to the cross-event in God, that is, to the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son revealed most fully through the crucifixion, from which the Spirit proceeds.

To put it bluntly: a congregation’s mission may be understood as its self-perpetuation. But this will never be its charism. The charism of a congregation will always lead to its “being poured out like a drink offering” (2 Tim. 4:6) for the sake of the world. And individual efforts at church shopping, when understood through the lens of charism, will not be about satisfying our desires but instead about seeing Jesus’ crucifixion reflected through the lens of his Church.

For my husband and me, our church search led us to a deeper understanding of the charisms most important to us: carefully thought out and practiced worship to draw us more deeply into the knowledge of God, serious and spiritually challenging theological inquiry in teaching and preaching, a brave commitment to justice. That understanding brought us a shortlist of churches that were varied at first glance: two Episcopal parishes, a Presbyterian congregation, an Orthodox church, a Church of Christ congregation. Though different in denomination, worship style, and theology, they were similar in charism.

Ultimately, we ended up in an Episcopal church whose well-developed charisms of worship and teaching proved a good fit. But I will always value those 17 churches, and grieve a little that in the end we had to choose only one. By their wide variety of spiritual gifts, they revealed to us in unexpected ways the mystery of faith.

Hannah Bowman works as a literary agent for Liza Dawson Associates and is a laywoman in the Diocese of Los Angeles. The founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, she volunteers as a chaplain in the L.A. County jails with Prism Restorative Justice.

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John Thorpe

What a fantastic approach! I love that the concept of Charism takes this choice out of the world of consumerism and into the world of vocation. The whole point of belonging to a church is vocation, not consumption. We don’t join churches because we like them, or they fulfill us, or it’s just how we like to spend a Sunday morning. We join them because we are Christians and compelled by the beauty of what Christ did for us to worship Him alongside His saints in heaven and earth. I do think that this sentence – “just as those called… Read more »

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Mary Barrett

(1979 Book of Common Prayer, p.125)
O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon us the Spirit of love, that in companionship with one another your abounding grace may increase among us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.