What is a vital congregation? Is it simply a community of fervent conviction and shared belief about who we are, where we came from, why we’re here, and the direction the world is going? Or is congregational vitality to be measured by the emotional intensity of worship and song as evidence of God’s Spirit at work?
In my experience, vital congregations are more than a collection of individuals drawn together by similar personal experiences and needs that in turn are expressed through common beliefs or by similar styles of religious life. Vital congregations are communities of practice, where we immerse ourselves in those “patterns of communal action,” that in Craig Dykstra’s words “create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy and presence of God may be made known to us.”1
Far from being a recent innovation, “spiritual practice” is actually one of the oldest ways to describe the formation and nurture of God’s people for faithful living. Sabbath-keeping, for example, is according to the Hebrew Scriptures a practice that helps us to pattern the rhythms of our own lives on the creative rhythms of God at work in the world. Or in the Celtic church of pre-Roman Christianity in England, the practice of leadership by monastic abbots occurred not only through teaching, but even more importantly by means of personal example of the spiritual practices of the monastery. Here monks practiced the habitus, or habits, of life and worship that kept alive the vitality of the Christian way of life during what would be a long, dark age.
When congregations attend to becoming communities of spiritual practice, we learn that faithful living is more than going out and doing what people are taught on Sunday. Rather, during every day of our lives, faithful people are who they are today, because they have long practiced faithful virtues as members of intentional communities of faith.
Becoming an intentional community of spiritual practice involves the reinvigoration of what are really quite traditional ways of faithful life in community. Diana Butler Bass, in her work The Practicing Congregation, categorizes these practices in four broad areas: worship, prayer, moral formation, and life together. In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, she lists ten spiritual practices that she sees at work in vital congregations today: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty. These sorts of practices endure over time and across cultures. What changes are the specific activities by which specific groups of believers embody these practices in different times and places. Spiritual practices are what Yale theologian Paul Holmer once described as “the grammar of faith” in his book of the same name: they give shape and form and meaningful order to the infinite challenges and potentials of life in community as the church.
In my own work with churches and their everyday leaders, I have found that those communities of faith who long to become more vital congregations might well begin by focusing on several essential ways of being intentional communities of practice.
Fundamental to all faithful life in community is the Practice of Discernment, by which I mean discovering who we are in God’s sight—that our primary vocational calling is simply to be the creatures we have been created to be—in relationship, in community, celebrating the goodness of God’s creation. If we are to be able to discern what we are being called to do as God’s people, we must begin by discerning who God has created us to be—our spiritual identities. The desired outcome of the practice of discernment is a renewed appreciation of the lifelong process of spiritual formation through which “who we are” and “what we are called to do” come ever closer together in practices of faithful living.
Intimately connected to the practice of discernment is the central spiritual Practice of Story-Telling. The stories we tell about ourselves and about God have the capacity to shape—or to inhibit—the people we can become and the lives we can lead. Each of us has a way of telling our personal stories that not only expresses who we are willing to say we are in the present, but also influences the shape of who we are capable of becoming tomorrow. For example, when we tell our story as one of challenge and triumph we see different possibilities open to us than when we tell what Alban Senior Consultant Larry Peers describes as “a problem saturated story” of an insurmountable series of failures and frustrations.
In large measure we are the stories we are capable of telling about ourselves. Or put another way, “the stories we tell” tend to become “the reality we are capable of living.” If this is true about the practice of telling our personal stories, it is even more crucial for the practice of telling the stories of God—the Practice of Proclamation. Should it be any surprise that when our stories tell of a God who is perpetually angry and vengeful, our daily life with family, at work, and among fellow parishioners will be different than when we encounter God as full of compassion and slow to anger, and one whose grace is shown in loving us just as we are, however much more we still need to become?
These stories open up, or close off, the very Practice of Hospitality that we envision for congregational life. Are we merely tolerant of those who are strangers or different from us? Or do we attempt to be inclusive? Or can we go further to risk “radical hospitality,”—moving from mere inclusion to what theologian Miroslav Volf calls “embrace,” or what Adelle Frank at the Church of the Bretheren describes as “intentional vulnerability,” which is what Benedictine Sister Joan Chittester means, I think, when she speaks of living “without clenched fists”?
One spiritual practice, as we see, always leads to another, in this case hospitality turning out to be the twin of the Practice of Service. In what my own parish calls “prophetic hospitality,” we not only expect to be changed by those who invite themselves through our doors, but we also have begun that an essential part of this change is learning about our common calling to go with our new neighbors and friends back out of those same doors to participate together in God’s redemptive transformation of the world.
So Discernment has led us to Story-Telling, and then to Proclamation, and on to Radical Hospitality and now to Transformative Service. But it does not end there. Service requires the Practice of Stewardship, which depends on the Practice of Generosity. The more we live out our congregational life as intentional communities of practice, the more vital our congregations become, and the broader the range of spiritual practices we discover ourselves to be called to, and capable of, together becoming agents of the Reign of God.
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The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regarding “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new type of congregation.
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Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel
Lillian Daniel shares how her congregation reappropriated the practice of testimony one Lenten season, a practice that would eventually revitalize their worship and transform their congregational culture. Tell It Like It Is features the testimonies worshipers heard and reflections from both those who spoke and those who listened to these stories about God at work in the world.