1. Welcome, Purpose, and Background

Welcome to the Five Practices Blog (Web Log, for those of us new to this form of conversation!). I’m Robert Schnase, Bishop of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church and author of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. The purpose of this website is to identify and connect congregations and church leaders who seek to multiply their ministries by repeating, deepening, and improving on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. This website serves as a source for new ideas, best practices, suggested readings, sermons, study guides, internet resources, teaching congregations, and event announcements that strengthen the basic practices of congregational ministry. The “open source” format of FivePractices.org is intended to encourage sharing, downloading, and distribution of helpful ideas.

The Five Practices Blog will be my way of entering the conversation and fostering discussion and reflection on congregational ministry. Over the months to come, I hope to offer one, two, three or more reflections per week about our ministry together in Christ. For years, I’ve kept a personal journal of ministry experiences and my reflections upon them, but I’ve never shared in a public forum such as this. This is my first experiment with Blogging, and I covet your patience, encouragement, conversation, and suggestion as we try this out together. Comments are welcome and encouraged, but I would ask that all participants in these conversations remain true to the purpose of the website and respectful to one another in our dialogue.

To get things started, I thought I might share how the notion of the Five Practices came about.  During the first meeting of the Council of Bishops that I attended in the fall of 2004, Bishop Bruce Ough offered a “best practices” workshop on leadership in annual conferences. He described the priorities the West Ohio Conference had been working on which focused on congregational and clergy excellence. He also talked about the importance of a common language in a large organization, and described how his conference had begun using Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Faith-Forming Relationships, and Risk-taking Mission, Service and Justice as the marks or characteristics of healthy congregations.  Receiving these, people come to faith and offering these, the church fulfills its ministry.

Several things struck me about the conversation. First, I appreciated the importance of a common language. When laypersons and pastors from one congregation can speak to people of another with a common language, there’s a powerful multiplying effect.  And when the church – local congregation, district, conference, board of ministry, conference council, cabinet – all begin to speak of common processes and outcomes, a vision takes hold.   Second, I was taken by the power of the image Radical Hospitality, in particular, and how those words stretched and challenged us beyond just being friendly. 

From this, I began to think about the words and about the essential qualities of effective congregations. We began to have conversations in the Missouri Conference about what makes for vital congregations – with the conference council, the conference staff, the cabinet, pastors and laypersons. We worked the words and ideas in new ways.  We found ourselves preferring “intentional faith development” to “faith-forming relationships” for its linguistically parallel quality with the other marks of vital congregations, even though they point to the same practices of ministry. We abbreviated to “risk-taking mission and service” for the same reason. I personally felt that “giving” or “generosity” deserved to be highlighted and not subsumed as merely an aspect of the maturing in faith or sanctification that comes with intentional faith development, and so we added a fifth quality. After several months of “working the words,” we presented the five marks of congregational health at the 2005 gathering of the Missouri Conference in the Episcopal Address.

During the months before and after the 2005 conference, I preached in many congregations, large and small, about the five marks of congregational health and strength. Other bishops entered the conversation, some shaping their language according to the five marks we were using in the Missouri Conference and others shaping their language after the four marks that Bishop Ough highlighted in the churches of Ohio. In some conferences, such as the Texas Conference under the leadership of Bishop Janice Huie, the five became central to vision and mission statements and core values.

The powerful images and language have incredible appeal, and stimulate extraordinary ministry. They are bigger than any single conference’s vision statement. Bishop Ough inherited some of the language from others, including the term “radical hospitality,” which is the title of an excellent book by a Benedictine writer. And I built on what I received from Bishop Ough, and other congregational and conference leaders have built on what the Missouri Conference has offered. These words capture peoples’ imaginations, and give greater clarity to how the church fulfills its mission of making disciples. I’m well aware that these five are much bigger than the book I have written to help people understand, discuss, and apply the five practices. They are derived from the formative practices of the early church, and have marked congregational mission since the events of the second chapter of Acts.

That’s a brief history of how these wonderfully powerfully words have leapt from conference to conference, congregation to congregation, pastor to pastor, layperson to layperson with incredible speed and spirit. They have a life of their own, and there is a contagious quality to their use. They are helping many congregations reconsider their ministries and to expand to greater outreach and fruitfulness.

How did you hear about the Five Practices? What attracted you to use the language? What do you see as the value of a common language in your congregation?

In a future Blog, I’ll share how the language of “practices” came into the conversation, and why there are five.

Blessings to you in your ministry!

Grace and peace,