“We tried that program last year, and this fall we’re going to try the new Five Practices program.”
I confess that I cringed a little when I heard those words, although I was grateful that the congregation is using the material and I pray they find it helpful. Call me the over-sensitive-writer-type, but in my own mind there is a difference between practices and programs that is pretty significant. One of the reasons that Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations has been so broadly appreciated by pastors and laity and so widely used in diverse congregational contexts is because it is not a program—it is a reminder of practices that are larger than, prior to, and more fundamental and enduring than programs. Programs come and go. Practices must be repeated, deepened, relearned, expanded, improved, adapted, and exercised over and over again.
For instance, the practice of Intentional Faith Development is an activity that is so critical to fulfilling our mission that if congregations fail to perform it in exemplary ways, the congregation will eventually grow weaker, lose focus, and die away. This practice involves all the ways we help people intentionally learn in community, mature in the faith, and “grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.” This practice finds expression in Bible studies, Sunday school classes, book studies, topical studies, house groups, retreats, UMW circles, short-term learning opportunities, personal devotional reading, and countless other ways by which we learn God’s word, deepen our understanding of the faith, and cultivate our relationship with God. Churches of all ages at all stages in all contexts have to find a way to do this. The practice is essential.
To help congregations repeat and deepen this critical practice, there are hundreds of programs that give structure, direction, and content. Some programs work and some don’t. Some work in one context and not another. Some worked years ago, but they don’t serve so well any longer. The study of scripture is the practice. However, Disciple Bible Study, Companions in Christ, Koinonia, Bible Study Fellowship, quarterly Sunday school literature, The Walk to Emmaus, a camping ministry, and all those choices in the Cokesbury Curriculum Catalogue are some of the programs that help improve and deepen the practice.
Risk-taking Mission and Service is the practice, but Volunteers in Mission, Kairos Prison Ministries, Habitat for Humanity, Rainbow Network, or Partner/Covenant Churches are programs that help us learn and do the practice. Extravagant Generosity is the essential practice, but Consecration Sunday, Capital Funds Consulting plans, Nothing But Nets—these are the programs. There are literally thousands of programs available to churches to help them with their ministries in the areas of youth, children, seniors, evangelism, assimilation, small groups, study, worship, music, mission, stewardship, administration, and countless other areas.
While preparing to run marathons, I used to go through six months or more of preparation and training before each event. The essential practice was running. So each day and week, I’d log my miles, measure my distances, time my pace. To keep motivated and to help learn more about the sport, I subscribed to running magazines. Every single issue of every magazine had a series of articles, each introducing or promoting a new training program. The programs were specific plans for how far, how fast, and for how long, and on what kinds of track or road conditions one should train to meet certain objectives. Some programs focused on increasing speed, some on improving endurance, some on losing weight, some on recovering from a specific kind of injury, some for preparing to run up hills or in higher altitudes. The programs were for specific periods of weeks or months to improve specific areas of functioning. What did they all have in common? They all helped the runner do the one essential task–practice running! The practice at the heart of them all was the same.
The essential practices of congregational life involve inviting and welcoming people into the body of Christ, gathering people to help them connect to God and to one another, offering opportunities to mature in faith, to serve and to give. We’ve called these Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking Mission and Service, Extravagant Generosity. Another generation will call them by other names. But the practices have remained essential to the church since the second chapter of Acts, and they will characterize life together in Christ for generations to come. Programs will come and go to help us do these well in every period of the church’s life.
The new Focus on the Five Practices—A Congregation-Wide Initiative may have the appearance of a temporary program because it focuses on specific activities during a limited period of time. However, the intention is to systematically and intentionally deepen the understanding about the essential practices of ministry throughout a congregation. My hope is that after five weeks of focused conversation, prayer, preaching, teaching, and learning about the practices, congregations will want to create, initiate, or avail themselves of many helpful programs to achieve their mission and improve their practice. Understanding the Five Practices motivates people to reach out for quality resources, try new ideas, learn from other congregations, and to develop and make use of all kinds of tools—including programs—to achieve our mission.
Yours in Christ,