Belief, Practices, and Re-Thinking Church

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.

4 thoughts on “Belief, Practices, and Re-Thinking Church

  1. Jay,
    This is one of the more thoughtful critiques of Rethink Church and one that should spark a constructive conversation about what exactly we should do if we seriously rethink United Methodism. In fact, I personally have given considerable thought to the deeper issues that we need to consider, and don’t think the marketing direction we’re taking is sufficient, not because it’s wrong, but because marketing isn’t an adequate platform for considering the theological foundations for authentic faith community. After the national AP article broke yesterday featuring Rethink Church I started to write some of my thoughts. However, it became clear I was beginning a book, not a blog post.

    Your post raises deeper theological questions than marketing can address. What is the nature of faith community, and faithful community, in the 21st. Century? How will that community constitute itself and express its faithfulness? What will faith mean in an age of cafeteria choices? How do we manage the worship practices that are faithful to the the historic traditions of the church while also trying to be relevant and engaging with those who have no knowledge of them?

    In the AP article a professor of religion views the marketing inadequate to attract a younger audience precisely because mainline tradition holds fast to traditional worship, worship which he thinks will turn off “progressive young adults.” It’s too easy to critique the marketing but overlook the fundamental challenge of doing theology in this age of great change. This is why I believe the marketing content cannot adequately analyze and address the deeper motivations and meaning that are in the minds and hearts of those who are seeking a relationship with God, and hopefully with a community of faith. This can only be addressed in a community by those who lovingly listen and respond to each other, and who inform themselves of the traditions and their meaning.

    If we risk not addressing these questions, then your concern will come to pass. But the danger is not limited to the marketing. The danger is in the quality of congregational life. If we do not study, pray and explore the meaning of worship, we will surely accommodate to the culture in the least helpful way and become another stop on the journey through the spiritual cafeteria.

    It’s instructive that the Greek Orthodox Church is seeing a growing number of young families returning to worship and church life. The church probably hasn’t changed its liturgy in hundreds of years, yet it’s attracting a new group of younger persons. What might that tell us?

    Your thoughtfulness in this post is a welcome invitation to deeper theological reflection about who we are as a community in all our diversity and, equally, within a particular tradition that informs us and shapes us.

    Thanks for this thinking.


  2. I am always skeptical when I hear companies talk about rebranding. Perhaps re-missioning is a more appropriate term for us.

  3. I have been a pastor for 34 years and this discussion about Peterson’s writing is some of the best, most insightful I have known. I have long ago realized that the church is not crated to be a hospital for sinners, more like a medical school that trains wounded healers (Nouwen). There is power in bringing our wounds to the blog. Thanks for allowing me to overhear the gospel (Craddock) in your writings.

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