Wayne Whitson Floyd over at Alban Institute discusses the vitality of congregations. What makes a congregation vital? Common faith? Common cause? Common story or experience? Shared heritage? Does the emotional intensity of the worship or the fervency of the preaching make for a vital congregation?
By contrast, Julia Duin at the Washington Times describes how evangelical churches, which everyone thought were growing like topsy, are shrinking partly because they don’t appear to be paying attention to the basics.
Floyd says that a vital congregation is a community of intentional practice, which he says is not a new idea but a very ancient one in the Christian experience.
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.”
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.
Meanwhile, Duin talks about the experience of people in her circle of friends who have stopped going to their evangelical churches. One church could not organize a consistent way to get a disabled man to church. A single mom talked about her sense of isolation. Another felt that the congregations he experienced nurtured spiritual immaturity.
Religious attendance fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002, according to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. For years, Gallup polls have shown American church attendance hovering at 43 percent of the population, which would mean 129 million out of an estimated 300 million Americans at the end of 2006. However, two 2005 studies, one by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler and the other by Dave Olson, a researcher for the Evangelical Covenant Church, show that a more accurate attendance percentage is in the 18th to 20th percentile, half of what Gallup shows.
A significantly smaller number of Americans “are participating in the most basic Christian practices: the weekly gathering for worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship,” Mr. Olson said in the April 2006 issue of Christianity Today.
Mr. Hadaway and Ms. Marler faulted the complexities of American life – exhaustion, traffic, two working parents, even children’s soccer games increasingly getting scheduled on Sundays – as the main reason people give themselves much more leniency in skipping church.
Over at the site Practicing Our Faith, an intentional spiritual practice is defined as:
Christian practices are things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace to all creation through Christ Jesus.
When we live the practices of Christian faith, we join together with one another, with Jesus, and with the communion of saints across time and space in a way of life that resists death in all its forms – a way of life that is spilling over with the Life of God for creation, for our neighbors, and for ourselves….
….Practices point beyond the individualism of the dominant culture to disclose the social (i.e., shared) quality of our lives, and especially the social quality of Christian life, theology, and spirituality. Our thinking and living take place in relation to God and also to one another, to others around the world and across the centuries, and to a vast communion of saints.
Floyd describes five practices which, when focused on with intentionality, makes for a vital congregation.
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…
The 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…
…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…
…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….
Read: The Washington Times: Americans leaving churches in droves
Read: The Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith: What are Christian Practices?
Read: The Alban Institute: Vital Congregations as Intentional Communities of Practice.