Ever watch young little league baseball players practice? What do they do? They throw the ball into the grass so that their teammates can practice scooping up “grounders.” They throw the ball around the bases in various permutations, from third to second to first to short stop to pitcher. They practice running the bases, and sliding to safety. And they swing the bat at pitch after pitch to improve their batting.
Ever watch professional baseball players in the big leagues practice? These folks get paid gazillions of dollars, and they are elite athletes at the height of their game. They eat, sleep, and breathe baseball, and they’ve done so for fifteen, twenty, thirty years. What do they do? They throw the ball into the grass so that their teammates can practice scooping up “grounders.” They throw the ball around the bases in various permutations, from third to second to first to short stop to pitcher. They practices running the bases, and sliding to safety. And they swing the bat at pitch after pitch to improve their batting.
Here’s the point. Baseball involves certain basic practices, and whether you are a beginner or a pro, whether you are young or old, you simply keep repeating and deepening and improving on the same basic elements. Refined and excellent practice leads to greater creativity and expression. The same is true for music, ballet, the arts, creative writing, and many other pursuits. The same basic practices in varying combinations lead to more and greater creativity.
When we first began speaking of the Five in the Missouri Conference, we called them qualities, or marks, of healthy congregations. Other conferences have called them values, or elements of excellence. These are helpful constructs, but they may leave the impression that a congregation either has these marks or it doesn’t. Some have it and some don’t. This didn’t feel true to me. I’ve seen many congregations develop and deepen these in ways that changed the course of their congregational life. I’ve seen churches turn around by working on these. These seem to be things you do, activities that can be learned and improved upon, rather than static qualities that are present or absent. In fact, almost all congregations perform these activities to some degree. And those congregations that thrive do so by a continuing succession of practices, things done consistently and well, hundreds of them, that make a difference and help a congregation fulfill its mission.
While searching for the right language, I had the privilege of a long evening walk with my good friend and colleague, Janice Huie, Bishop of the Texas Conference. We talked this through at some length, searching for the right way of describing what the five really are: qualities, marks, elements, values, or something else. In our conversation, we came upon “practices.” This resonates with the spiritual practices of John Wesley’s days. The early Methodist movement thrived under rubrics of personal practices – from giving to the poor, visiting the imprisoned, praying, fasting, attending upon the sacraments, etc. And early Methodism was shaped by community practices, the sets of exercises that were repeated in every class and band meeting and preaching house. That’s how we came by the name “Methodist,” by the almost eccentric adherence to covenantal discipline and practice! So the language “practices” leans back to pick up our original DNA.
And I was struck by how many emergent communities of faith were using the language of practices. The term resonates with many of our younger clergy and laity, especially for those who look more at what we do to form their perceptions of us than to what we say we believe. In fact, I heard someone say that a generation ago, people came to faith through “belief, behavior, and belonging.” That is, we entered church life with professions of faith, then adopted the practices of worship and service, and then eventually came to a sense of belonging in a congregation. Now, according to this person, we enter communities of faith through “belonging, behavior, belief.” We feel embraced and accepted, then we begin to work in service and ministry, and then we discover that we really do believe in this person Jesus and the God he reveals to us! Practices is the key to involving people in ministry. It connects believe to action in intentional ways. A church marked by practices lives out its faith in concrete ways.
And so, the word “practices” helps us lean into the future.
What sealed the deal was the definition of “core process” that I use in the introduction to Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: “those activities that are so critical to the mission of the congregation that failure to perform them in an exemplary way leads to congregational deterioration and decline.” That definition points to actions, activities, doings, and ministries with results, differences, and outcomes in the lives of people.
The Five Practices are to congregations what the spiritual disciplines are to personal spiritual growth. Like baseball, piano, and ballet, we are never perfect, but always perfecting. We grow by growing, always repeating, deepening, and improving. We do this to the glory of God, and with ever repeating the basics, we become more effective and more creative. That’s how the five marks of healthy congregations became the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.
What do you think? Does the word “practices” serve well for what these mean for our ministry? How does the language of “practices” make the five more useful and doable?
Yours in Christ,