Some time this month, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations will pass a remarkable and unexpected milestone as someone purchases the 100,000th copy. Several thousand congregations have used the book as the basis for sermon series, leadership discussions, small group readings, or strategic planning since it was first published two years ago. More than 4,000 congregations are using the additional tools and support materials, including the Leader Manual and Media Kit for the Congregation-Wide Initiative, the Cultivating Fruitfulness daily devotional book, and the five Workbooks. Abingdon recently released Five Practices of Fruitful Youth Ministry for youth leaders, and The Balancing Act, a new daily devotional book based on the FivePractices.org blog. The Spanish Edition, Cinco Practicas de Congregaciones Fructiferas from Abingdon Press, becomes available this week! The German edition was released in Europe a few months ago.
I’m humbled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the reception the book has received across the United Methodist Church and among many of our sister denominations. I continue to wonder why these Five Practices have struck such a chord among congregational leaders. What makes these simple, edgy words so powerful for motivating and stimulating ministry?
The Five Practices language creates a clear line of sight between the work of the congregation and the essential mission of Christ. It offers a sense of coherence about the mission of the church that allows people to see how their own efforts and work sustain the ministry of Christ. Many people report “Aha!” moments when they realize how what they do in worship, service, or Bible study fits into the big picture. By focusing on practices instead of characteristics, the book generates a sense of hopeful capacity for response, allowing leaders to see that they really can do something to renew their churches, and that by repeating and deepening and improving on certain fundamental activities, their churches change.
The book is positive and hopeful. It focuses on what resides in the very best of ourselves, in our pastors, our laity, and our congregations. The book doesn’t “sell” anyone on Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, etc.; rather, it invites people to improve upon what they already intuitively know is true and needs to be done. In varying measures, the book confirms, convicts, and encourages. It makes explicit and intelligible what we already intuitively know. The language resonates with twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in a way that does not alienate older, more traditional leaders. Longer-term members feel stimulated by the language; instead of rejecting the language, they find themselves saying, “Yes, I need a little more passion and risk.”
And the words reach out to the margins and edges of the church. The language propels the church outward, focuses energy and ministry beyond the walls in a way that doesn’t scare traditionalists. The book stretches leaders without threatening them. It does not say, “You are doing this all wrong,” or “You have to totally change.” The message is, “We have the core, and we know what is true and right, and we’ve done this before with varying degrees of fruitfulness in the past; but we have to retool, adapt, enliven, deepen, and expand on these practices with renewed vigor, intentionality, and focus.”
Five Practices is a conversation that bubbles up from lay people, moves among pastors, and is shared by bishops. There are no metrics, no three-year plans, no step-by-step prescriptions, no consultants, and no prescribed models. The book provokes creative contextual response and generates ideas from within the community. It’s inspiration, and may stimulate congregations to engage consultants, read books, visit other churches and learn in order to meet their challenges. It provides a common language that unites disparate segments and branches of congregational practices and ministry. It provides a focus that directs work toward the essentials of the mission of Christ. It’s a reminder of what is most important, and how each of us fits into the mission.
I give thanks to God for the privilege of being part of this wonderful project. It’s been an exhilarating and rewarding experience. And I give thanks for all the pastors and congregational leaders and teachers and musicians and youth ministers who have taken the time to think deeply, pray passionately, and lead effectively using the Five Practices.
What’s next? So far, interest in the Five Practices has not waned. Many congregations are preparing new initiatives and sermon series and stewardship emphases for this coming fall. I continue my presentations in conferences, districts, and seminaries during this year to come. More foreign language translations have been requested. A group of highly respected church leaders has trained together to offer presentations in their own regions (see this page for details). And I’m working on the next book, which moves from a focus on the practices of congregations to a discussion of the essential personal practices of discipleship in Christ.
Thank you for your prayerful support in this shared ministry.
Yours in Christ,