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Key Practices of Thriving Congregations

How would you describe a thriving congregation? Perhaps a thriving congregation has young people attending worship. Another thriving congregation might manage conflict well.


At the Center for Congregations in Indiana, we interact with all kinds of flourishing congregations. Here’s what we’re learning from faith communities that thrive.


 


Healthy Strategies



  • Focus on congregational assets rather than problems. Reframe observations as a positive question “What is going well?”

  • Learn to do new things. This encourages intentional growth as a community. See the book How Your Congregation Learns.

  • Help your people to live life well. Connect teachings, worship, and faith convictions to the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.


As part of our work, we captured the stories of 12 innovative, thriving congregations around the United States. Below are some of their common practices.


 


Intentional Practices of Innovative Congregations



For more information, see the book Divergent Church.


On the surface, thriving may look like growing worship attendance or conflict management. By considering the strategies and practices listed above, your congregation can take new steps to thrive.


 


For further discussion

Brainstorm strategies or practices that happen within thriving congregations.


 


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The Special Meaning of the Word “Practice”

Congregational life includes beliefs. Some congregations ask folks to believe certain things in order to be members. Your congregation may welcome questions about certain beliefs. Your congregation may host learning experiences that help you go deeper into theology. Yes, congregational life includes beliefs.

Congregations often invite us to deeper thinking, not just about beliefs but about life. The congregation in which I grew up had an open forum Sunday School class. This class helped people talk about so many important things in life: parenting, politics, marriage, vocation, education, health, medical ethics, science and much more.

Congregational life evokes emotions

If you are active in your congregation, you are going to feel joy. You are going to feel sadness. You may find yourself angry. Or you may be in worship overwhelmed with a feeling of gratefulness.

Many vibrant congregations pay attention to behavior. Not just good behavior at a team or committee meeting, but also the practices of prayer or generosity. Congregations can (and should) be a place which teaches us how to act on our faith commitments.

Practice

There is a framework that takes into account beliefs, thinking about life, emotions and behavior. This framework is called practice. A practice is an expansive, almost universal action with a long history that includes standards of excellence and is commonly followed in community.

Washing one’s hands isn’t a practice. It is almost universal, but it just isn’t expansive enough. It is an activity, not a practice. Love is universal. But I’d argue it is more of an emotion than a practice. Hospitality is a practice. Generosity is a practice. Decision-making is a practice.

What makes a practice a religious practice?

It is the degree to which one brings to bear one’s religious understandings to shape the practice.

Two people who have much to offer regarding the framework of practice are Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra. As we moved into a new century, they really helped those of us who care about congregations recover a sense of Christian practice.

If you are interested in learning more about how your congregation can benefit from this framework of practice, explore the resources listed below. Remember, one of the best things about a practice framework is the integration of beliefs about God, thinking about life, emotions and behavior. It is all there. It is more than a belief or a feeling. It is more than a thought or a behavior. It might just be a way of life.

Growing in the Life of Faith

Practicing Our Faith

Living into Community

Practicing Witness

Imagining the Kingdom

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The Practical Implementation of Appreciative Inquiry

In recent years, many congregations have asked about the use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is the process of identifying, considering and leveraging strengths. It is inclusive, engaging the entire congregation, in asking important questions such as, “what gives life to our congregation when it functions at its best?”

Implementing AI

Many pastors and congregational leaders have asked us about the practical implementation of this process. How is it used, where do you start and what is my role?

Here are some important things to consider:

The Center for Congregations, through the CRG, recommends many resources on Appreciative Inquiry and positive change to help you get started. As always, we stand ready to answer your questions.

For The CRG Created For The CRG
The Formative Power of Your Congregation

Many elements make you the person you are. You are shaped by your race, your geographic location, and your genetic structure. Your personality is formed by your family, your friends, and the choices you make along the way. You are influenced by education, social affiliations and friendships.

All of us are formed by the company we keep. The company we keep includes the congregation you attend. Whether you are aware of it or not, the activities of your congregation create certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make you who you are. In this way, your congregation has formative power.

Life together
I was reminded of the importance of being part of a religious community when a clergy person described a project happening in his congregation. He told me about a booklet being produced by the staff called Rule of Life. The Rule of Life is a guidebook outlining what it means to be part of the congregation.

The pastor says, “We want to encourage people to live a certain way of life.” Part of the guidebook is written as a catechism with answers to be learned and recited. Other parts of the guide describe specific practices in which one participates as a member of the congregation: at noon every day we are going to pray this Psalm.

If you read Psalm 23 every day, that Psalm is going to become part of who you are. The virtue of trust represented in the lines of the Psalm will more likely become part of your heart, mind and soul.

What elements are most formative in a congregation?
Of course, it depends on the particular congregation. I have observed and experienced the following activities having a positive impact on adherents:


  • Testimony, telling the story of their lives

  • Religious practices, particularly worship, prayer, singing, study of scripture, and rites of passages or sacraments

  • Reflection on practice: not just doing things but thinking about their impact with others

  • Relationships including across generations

  • Liminal experiences: pilgrimages, mission trips, cross-cultural experiences, spiritual retreats

Sharing stories
Here is an exercise to consider doing with a congregational board, team or class.

Remember a time when a congregational experience formed or reinforced a positive attribute in you. Write down the experience. Take turns sharing the stories out loud. Listeners are invited to ask open, curious questions to enhance group reflection. What themes are evident? What further growth might the congregation support?

Resources you can use
To consider this subject more, look at these resources: the books In Search of Wisdom, Community: The Structure of Belonging, and Living into Community.

 

For The CRG Created For The CRG
Your Congregation and Innovation


The Harvard Business Review defines innovation as “the difficult discipline of newness.” What new thing is forming in your congregation? The congregation I attended last Sunday is starting a Friday night dinner, which will end with communion. In explaining the gathering, the pastor said “We don’t have to wait for Sunday to break bread together.”


My colleague Kara Faris and I have learned about the difficult discipline of newness from 12 innovative congregations. Stories from leaders of these congregations are in the book Divergent Church.


We learned of six practices evident in various configurations among these congregations. By practices, we mean universal human activities that take on unique and often new shape in these innovative congregations.


The congregations told remarkable stories that featured creative expressions of these six practices:




  • Shaping Community

  • Conversation

  • Artistic Expression

  • Breaking Bread

  • Community Engagement

  • Hospitality


If you were given full license to innovate regarding a practice, which practice would you choose and what would the innovation look like?


If you are interested in reading the book Divergent Church email me at tshapiro@centerforcongregations.org and I will send you a copy.


To learn more about congregations and innovation, take a look at the blog From Hallowed Space to Holograms and the organization Ministry Incubators.


By the way, the congregation starting the Friday night gathering is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Innovation is not dependent on a congregation being shiny and new.


web resource
Spirituality and Practice
This web resource, Spirituality and Practice, was created to celebrate and support the axis of all world religions and spiritual paths - the intersection of spirituality and practice.
book
The Way of Discernment, Participant's Guide (Companions in Christ)
This study guide engages small groups in a 10-week consideration of discernment, helping congregational groups determine where the spirit of Christ might lead them.
organization
The Transforming Center
This organization offers retreats for Christian leaders focused on spiritual formation themes and practices, spiritual disciplines, and nurturing one's inner self. The program includes nine retreats over a two year period.
article
Spiritual Leadership in a Secular World
This practical article offers four tips to balance the challenges of being a spiritual leader in a secular world.
book
Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World
This resource outlines five practices for fruitful service based on the author's justice work experience as an advocate for education in Haiti.
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