Monday, January 12, 2015

10 Vitalizing Spiritual Practices for Communities of Faith

The new year is a chance to cultivate a new habitus. I'm hoping our faith community will increasingly exercise some of these. I offer them in the spirit of mutuality. Perhaps you will cultivate some of them in the places you live, and you will offer your own in the comments.

Both/And Thinking

Too many people think either/or. Either you like contemporary worship and dislike traditional worship, or you like traditional worship and dislike contemporary worship. Either you are good at working with children, or you are good at working with the elderly. Either this group can have its way, or that group can have its way.

But much of life needn't be either/or. Instead, cultivate both/and thinking. Just because somebody has a gift in one area doesn't mean they lack gifts in all others. Just because I like Sleater-Kinney doesn't mean I automatically dislike Taylor Swift.

Sometimes in the church we call this the difference between a gospel of scarcity vs. a gospel of abundance. Either/or thinking assumes there is never enough to go around. Either you are rich or you are poor, and somebody else's success is at your expense. A gospel of abundance assumes that there is enough to go around, that the arrival of newcomers in a congregation is also good for old comers, and that long-standing members have gifts to share with those who are new.

Cooperation, not competition, is the name of the game.

Everybody has a ministry in this church. What's yours?

Nobody bottle necks ministry in the church. Committees don't exist to tell people whether they can or can't do the thing God is calling them to. Instead, everybody has a ministry, and the only question remains, "What's yours?" People don't share ideas to get other people to do them. Ideas are owned. If you want to see something happen, you help make it happen.

Re-rooting in the neighborhood

Lots of churches float like Laputa above the neighborhoods in which they are situated. They may have elaborate theories in place about love of neighbor, but they know very few of their actual neighbors... and their neighbors don't know them. So adapt at least some of the lovely ministries the congregation organizes to get out and be in the neighborhood of the church. Or just get out and walk. Walking is a completely under-utilized and under-valued spiritual practice. We could do a lot worse for our neighborhoods than simply walk them and pray while we walked. Who knows what we might encounter? This concept of re-rooting is described especially well in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.

Get real about social issues

Faith communities do a bit of soft talk about social justice issue, but our walk is considerably less than adequate. Take, for example, the argument in Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity), where Jennifer Harvey proves rather convincingly that the Christian desire for reconciliation is misguided, because of the incommensurability of the experience of race of blacks vs. whites, and thus a reparations paradigm is better. Or A Framework for Understanding Poverty; A Cognitive Approach, which illustrates how little most faith communities are actually aware of how they are bound and constrained by assumptions about class and wealth.

Equip one another, and learn in community

We need each other for challenge and growth. Christian leaders who organize huddles, learning communities designed for discipleship and leadership development, often note that essential to such groups is an appropriate balance of invitation and challenge. We need each other for mutual encouragement and invitation, and we also need each other to challenge each other, so we can observe, act from, and learn from, the kairos moments God places in our lives. Are you in a group that challenges you? Are you being discipled and discipling?

Create safe space for faith exploration

Sometimes I think the most apt description of the kind of spirituality we host in the ELCA, and the kind of spirituality I attempt to host as a pastor, is to create safe space for exploration in faith. Rather than giving all the answers, are we creating space for everyone to raise, identify, and ask questions? Is it okay to doubt, struggle, wonder? In our own congregation, one of the primary places people feel safe doing this kind of exploration is in our catechumenal process. Lay led bible study gathering around the gospel from Sunday morning brings our lives into conversation with the text, trusting that the Holy Spirit is present wherever this is happening.


Oh wow, if only the church were known as the go-to place for art. Oh wait, it already is! Just think about it. Where else can you hear live music every single week for free? Where else can you join with others in boisterous song and not have to drink? Where else are instruments themselves art (organs)? Of course there are many places that offer space for art, from community centers to public school. But it is worth noting that the church is an art house, and if we let it be so, it can often be a mighty fine one. It takes much work to strive for excellence, and sometimes the church has traded in rather mediocre fair, but we are up to the challenge of Arcade Fire or Banksy. We can make beautiful things.

To reach people we've never reached, we'll need to go places we've never gone

Most of the church most of the time is designed to reach the 40% of the population every other church is trying to reach. This means about 60% of the population is not the "target market" for the church, and all our frenzied activity as churches continues to aim for the 40%, most of whom are already at least somewhat predisposed (though increasingly not as much) to be interested in faith community affiliation.

To bring the gospel to folks not in that 40%, we're going to have to go places we've never gone. By this I mean places, literally, like clubs and shops and streets and cities and homes and countries. But I also mean emotionally, open to experiences and feelings and risks we've never encountered.

Shift from membership to mission partners

I've never been very comfortable with the language of membership for communities of faith. It makes the church seem like a club you join. Unless of course you take a more archaic definition of membership, where we are members (as in limbs), bodied together. But I prefer the idea of doing faith together as being partners in mission. We are all in this together, each called by God, and so we accompany each other on the journey. This means there aren't clients (members to be served) and patrons (staff or pastors who are supposed to supply services) but rather a whole community together in God's mission to the world, mutually strengthening one another for that common mission.

Like going on a walk together, all walking the same way.

Digital and real together

In a way this is like the both/and thinking above. But basically, ministry in digital and real contexts don't have to be mutually exclusive, and they aren't. The ambient intimacy of social media can enhance the face-to-face time of faith communities, and it can extend, in remarkable ways, the ministry of the church to those who struggle with being in real body community. I think here especially of those who have anxieties or phobias about large groups, or simply those who are less mobile. Streaming sermons, building relationships on-line, being available in digital chat contexts, these are not distractions from real ministry. They ARE real ministry. And when all of us who are part of faith communities start realizing we are doing ministry when we tweet or post status updates, the work of the church will be enhanced and spread in miraculous ways.


Undergird all the above with prayer. Form groups to pray the daily offices. Invite people to pray for and during the most vital moments of the congregation's life, such as worship or council meetings. Weave prayer into everything. Pray without ceasing.

Be Bored Together

Having just listened to this spot on NPR, I add one more. Be bored together.


  1. I heard that NPR report on my commute home last night and immediately thought about its implications for our church life. Time to download that "Moment" app and get accountable...

  2. Great, meaty post, PC. I'd like to see you explore each of these as a separate post.

    And I'd really like to see you demonstrate being bored.

  3. I'll take your advice and do separate posts on each of these items. In some cases, I probably already have, and can link back to them.

    Yes, I'm trying to figure out how to be bored, also.

  4. Equip one another, and learn in community proves to be the suggested habit for 2015 that resonates the most to me. A first-time Sunday school teacher for high school students, I have been richly blessed with the opportunity to dive into scripture and Luther's small catechism with a group of bright, curious, yet critical group. This recent addition to my schedule prompts my suggested addition to your list: be a lifelong learner with the zeal noted in Romans 12:11.
    Thank you for this post and I'm looking forward to future elaborations on each topic!

  5. Equip one another, and learn in community, of the habits listed, resonates deeply with me at the start of this New Year. A first-time Sunday school teacher, I am blessed t have the opportunity to dive into scripture with a group of bright, curious, yet critical high school students. This recent addition to my schedule prompts my suggested addition to your list: have a midget of a lifelong learner (with the zeal noted in Romans 12:11). We are all pupils of God's infinite glory and have the opportunity, as we walk this earth together, to grow in faith.
    Thank you for this post and I'm looking forward to future posts that elaborate further on each topic!