Steeple photoFirst Parish Church of Newbury is a Congregational church that has membership in the United Church of Christ. “Congregational” describes how we govern ourselves as a local church. The system, which traces to the early Puritans’ quest for a way of being holy together before God, vests every church member with an equal say and responsibility in church affairs. This means a teen who confirms his or her baptism at age 13 or 14 has the same say in any church-wide meeting as the most senior deacon and the minister.


This egalitarian distribution of power in the church served as a model for governing a modern society. It laid important philosophical groundwork for the world’s first democracy to be established here, in the United States, 150 years after the dawn of Congregationalism on these shores. Yet although Congregationalism confers one vote to each member of the church, the hope and vision is not for majority rule. The goal is always to reach unanimous consensus, just as the early church discovered through the Holy Spirit how to be “all of one accord” (Acts 1:14).


Why is consensus so important? Because God is one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united in the holy Trinity – and a community that reflects this divine unity must likewise seek concord en route to discerning the will of God. Early Congregationists were insistent: where the congregation remains divided, the will of God is still hidden, not yet revealed, and must be sought with greater earnestness. They set aside entire days for prayer and fasting with hopes that God would purge all sources of discord and guide them to a total unity that would be reflective of God’s will.


Today we honor this heritage by asking new members of the church to declare their faith commitments in the assembly when they’re received into the congregation. This creates a community of believers who can together discern God’s will. Such discernments happens through habitual study of scripture, habits of worship and practices of prayer that involve opening the heart as well as listening for clarity. Congregationalism, at its best, is a finely tuned instrument for discovering and transmitting the will of God in a particular place. It’s a high calling, to be sure, but that’s part and parcel to the adventure of being a Congregationalist Christian.