I’ve been re-reading Tom Frank’s excellent book, The Soul of the Congregation and while this thought is usually before me, it jumped out at me tonight as a good reminder:
…people generally do not adopt a set of beliefs called “Christianity” and then pick out a church in which to express them. People become “Christian” by practicing a variety of activities enriched by the traditions and cultures of the faithful across the generations – worshiping, singing, praying, eating, reading scripture, visiting the sick, helping the needy. But practices cannot cannot simply be deduced because there is a need for worship in the world. I worship because it is a way of life. My life may be a mess of shame and disappointment but those conditions do not necessarily eventuate in my praying. When I do worship and pray, though, I find myself welcomed into a whole world of practice – language, tune, symbol, story – that I learn more fully only over time. As Bourdieu put it in one of his most delightful sentences, “It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know.
–The Soul of the Congregation by Tom Frank, pp. 47-48
One could easily argue that the premise behind the “10,000 Doors” portion of the “Rethinking Church” initiative of the United Methodist Church is based in Frank’s first couple of sentences, in which he acknowledges that it is the practices of faith that lead one into belief rather than the other way around. The danger, however, is to somehow see each practice and an end unto itself without the deeper theological connection to the “traditions and cultures of the faithful across the generations.” More simply put, practices such as helping the needy or engaging in ministries of justice (the kinds of practices lifted up at 10,000 Doors) do not lead to faith in isolation from the more traditional practices of worship, prayer, etc. Frank reminds us that this faith thing is a holistic way of life in which all of the practices work in a synergistic fashion to help us grow in our love of God and our love of neighbor.
Part of Frank’s task in his book is to suggest that the unique practices of each congregation forms a lens through with the life of faith is both understood and experienced. The problem with universal branding efforts such as “Rethinking Church” and “10,000 Villages” is that they are unable to acknowledge the differences in identity that exist between multiple congregations. Let’s face it, the Antioch United Methodist Church is a radically different place than the Edgehill United Methodist Church downtown, and both our congregations are radically different from West End UMC in the same city. All claim a common thread of tradition, but each congregation maintains a difference set of practices which reflects a different set of values, which makes each entity unique. I would argue that the none of the approaches of any of these congregations is “wrong”… they simply are what they are, as people engage in practices that affirm those identities.
However, while each church is different and unique, they maintain a unity of identity through the common practices that have been part of churches throughout the centuries. All three congregations have different worship styles, but they all place a premium on worship. The language used in prayer probably differs from the high church environment of West End to the common farm folks of Antioch, but all believe in the power of prayer. These “traditional” practices are what makes a church a church and not a social agency or a community club. To ignore them or minimize their importance and power is to fail to recognize the centrality of these practices in defining who we are.
My fear in our new initiatives is that the conversations regarding theological and “practical” identity were never heard. Rather, these approaches to marketing were driven less by an understanding of faith and more by analysis of the marketplace and through feedback from focus groups. This analysis is important, but as Bordieu says at the end of Frank’s writing, most folks have little clue of the power of practices to create a way of life in their lives. Thus we find ourselves in danger of ignoring or minimizing the practices of faith that represent the core of who we are in a false belief that all practices are created equal.