The eternal rhythms of spiritual formation can be seen in the seasons of the church year. Holy days and seasons create sacred space in the cycle of the year that can be used as a teaching tool for children and newcomers to faith—and indeed, for deepening personal faith as well. The seasons of the church year tell the story of the life of Christ and God’s redemptive work in the world. They also tell the story of the church, the people of God. Timeless stories from tradition offer a way for us to connect our own personal and group stories to a larger picture and mine them for wisdom from a deep and rich history of faith. When we make those connections, we will be drawn into the divine rhythm of letting go, naming God’s presence, and taking hold. We will also see how our own stories both reflect and can be interpreted in light of the seasons of the church year.
Taking their cue from a world that thrives on imitation, congregations often shift from one program emphasis to another without taking an in-depth look into their own unique pilgrimage. But when they claim their own stories and work with them in relation to the seasons of the church year, they connect those stories to an ongoing story of God’s mighty acts. In so doing, they rediscover the reason for the church’s existence. Telling and reflecting on seasonal stories ground the church in an identity as the people of God on a pilgrimage of faith. Personal stories may be drawn from family, vocation, volunteering, or interpersonal and social relationships. Communal stories may be drawn from mundane or exciting matters of church life-board meetings, pastoral searches, program and staff appraisal, officer training, stewardship campaigns, building projects, mission trips, parties, program initiatives, and the like. When stories drawn from these and other events become the congregation’s shared lore for reflection and celebration, the church will find itself traveling an exciting journey with God.
I see three repeating triads in the eternal rhythm centered around three primary Christian festivals—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas is a festival of the Father who gives in love. Easter is a festival of the risen Son who by grace sacrificed his life for all. Pentecost is the festival of the Holy Spirit, who indwells believers with power. The major festivals name and celebrate a trinitarian presence and formative trinitarian spirituality. Each of these three festivals has a prelude and a postlude as well, so that each of the three triads corresponds to the three movements of spiritual formation—letting go, naming God’s presence, and taking hold. Advent is like Lent is like pre-Pentecost in our letting go while waiting and yearning. Christmas is like Easter is like Pentecost in our naming and celebrating God’s presence. And Epiphany is like Eastertide is like Ordinary Time, the season after Pentecost, in our taking hold by proclaiming and sending. Putting these triads together, we discover what I call the waltz of the gospel—one, two, three; one, two, three; one, two, three. The journey of faith, which may be taken in one or more of the seasons, becomes a lilting waltz, not a rigid march. The unfolding narratives in our life connect with the church seasons and the eternal rhythms of the gospel.
Some may object to placing so much narrative freight on the overloaded train of church seasons, observing that fewer folks understand or are in tune with the church seasons these days. Objectors may even call it a relic of a Christendom whose days are over. They point to the growing popularity of churches that do not follow prescribed lectionary readings, preferring series of topical sermons. For them, lack of familiarity with the church seasons may limit the seasons as a useful structure for prompting and reflecting on their stories. But I see an increasing interest in ritual and the church year—even among nonliturgical churches—and regular use of the accompanying lectionary readings in mainline Protestant denominations.
I believe even the apathetic or marginally active church member, along with new seekers, who push Christmas and Easter worship attendance to the top of the charts, could connect their lives to the rhythms of the church year. What precedes these festival events and what flows from them? What leads up to and follows Christmas? What leads up to and follows Easter? With these questions, we are thrust into the seasons of the church year. I believe that more people than we may presume would be willing to enter the dance. They would welcome the opportunity to connect their own stories to a vital tradition.
Adapted from The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories by Charles M. Olsen, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry.
Transforming Church Boards
into Communities of Spiritual Leaders
by Charles M. Olsen
You will never look at church boards the same way again. Olsen presents a bold vision of leadership—one that offers church board work as an integral part of congregational leaders’ faith experience and development. Discover inspiring, practical ways your board can make its meetings become opportunities for deepening faith, developing leadership, and ultimately renewing your church.
Discerning God’s Will Together:
A Spiritual Practice for the Church
by Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen
Bible study, research, and fieldwork merge in this book of practical principles for decision making by spiritual discernment. The step-by-step approach can be used to help any size group learn a new way to make decisions—a way that is interactive, spiritual, and rooted in faith practices and community.
Seeing Hope in a World of Change
by Gary and Kim Shockley
Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church—form a mental image of what we believe the church is and ought to be—we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”
Mark Lau Branson demonstrates how concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement—and how, by focusing on memories of the congregation at its best—members are able to build on those positive experiences as they shape the church’s future. Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations.
Copyright © 2009, the Alban Institute. All righ
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