the local parish-congregation.

Best Practices For the Local Congregation

On Christian Spirituality Congregational Best Practices

Tap or click on the words below. The text will roll down; re-tap the button to roll back up. These are meant to be a start, a step beyond mere definition. They'll be like the first article below, Your Neighborhood.

Understand Your Neighborhood

Many Christian gatherings call themselves "community" churches or "parishes". Both terms refer mainly to a geographic area that the congregation serves. Or they may caption their name with "A Neighborhood Fellowship" or "The Neighborly Church". But ask any non-member from the neighborhood what that church does, and they'll often say, "I never see much of them", or "They keep to themselves". Often, the ministers and elders only know a few parts of town - usually the safest, or where the residents are most like themselves. They don't even take the time to pedal or drive through parts of it, much less walk through it. And they don't know about many (or even most) important community institutions, such as schools, libraries, businesses, government offices, social service centers, and such. Often they know only the hospitals and the funeral homes.

Say 'Yes!' To Your Community

I suggest a different approach. Be intentional. Make a plan to find out what you don't know. Take the time to know the neighborhoods of your congregation. Make sure that all pastors, elders, youth leaders and leading staff take the time to learn the neighborhood(s) - together when possible. List and count the other congregations, and contact each one where possible. Know all the institutions, at least by name and location. Walk or bike the streets (or drive for the ones who have trouble doing that). Wander a bit. Have them take notes or voice memos as to what they find. Go into the bars when they have live performers, meet them and know who they are. Go in small groups into each particular area, and prayerwalk it on a regular basis. As you go through it, pay close attention to details. As you make a foundation of knowledge, meet together and talk about what you've learned:

This new knowledge base acts as a ground floor for what you do next. Your attitude must not be that your neighbors are merely a mission field. They are your neighbors, and you finally took the time to start knowing who they are and what they do. In a sense, we are a part of them, so now go out and take part in the life of the community you're in, both as individuals and as a Christian community. But before, you didn't know; now you do. You have no excuses. And as you go, you will come to understand the neighbors and the neighborhood better over time. You'll know how it's changing. You'll make mistakes. You'll hurt yourselves and/or others, sooner or later. But you will be where God has put you, and God will use you. As God constantly says in Scripture, "Fear not!"


The Heart of the Local Body

The early church was special. It was new, different, excited from direct encounters with its first love. But it was far from perfect; it had many conflicts, divisions, and even schools of thought which compare to those of today. (For instance, Peter's followers and James's followers were united at the core, but worked out their beliefs on non-Jews and on holiness differently.) A marriage or a child is something 'bigger' that binds the husband and wife; in a different way the Spirit and the mission are the 'something bigger' that binds the members of "the Body of Christ", as the gathered believers are often called. The Spirit calls it back to the experiences and the discoveries, the identity that was set up back then, in order to make clear how that follows through each day, and where that will lead tomorrow. The Spirit is less interested (though not un-interested) in forms and strategies, but more in what makes the church the church -- the Gospel message, the Kingdom vision, and Christ's love for those who do not know or accept the message or the vision. These have already been revealed, they're no secret, and they're meant for everyone. A church without these is not a church, is not part of the Body. And because people are gathered in towns and neighborhoods, so does the Church.


I Just Want to Testify

Many congregations (including Pentecostalists, Baptists, African-American Churches, African fellowships, some Methodists, and some Latin American communities) have found that the practice of sharing testimony has been helpful in discovering how God works in daily life. As Christians live, and find out how God works in their own lives, they share it with each other in worship, in prayer meetings, or in whatever else they do together. Anyone can testify, and thus anyone can take part in the process of discovery. The testimonies are sorted out over time, as those who hear the testimony try out these things in their own life through the 'Bible eyes' that the Spirit gives them, and find the truth or untruth in them.

There are dangers, though. One danger is that people might think that God is giving them teachings that have authority of their own. Testimony teaches us how to live a Christian life, not how to define what a Christian life is. (The Bible does that.) Another danger is that a testifying assembly can get caught up in sensational or dramatic testimony. Those who hear it can easily forget that sometimes people are liars, testifying to justify their deeds before others, or (even worse) to draw attention or praise or (worst of all) power to themselves. Everything that the Christian and the gathered fellowship does has to be subject to the weighing, testing, and sorting work of the Spirit through the processes and gifts of discernment. If those who receive testimony cannot uphold the duty to discern, it may be wiser not to let anyone testify, for such testimony would be out of context and thus be rendered unable to build up the fellowship.

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Committee/Board Meetings Spirituality

I know what you're thinking. "What???...... now wait a minute. I've never seen a committee meeting be anything spiritual. In fact, that's where we're deadest, where we most often quench the Spirit." Does it really have to be like that? Or can your fellowship, ministry, committee or council of elders take action in a different way?

It would be a good start to make two changes of vision.

First, the body/committee/entity is not there firstly to make decisions. It is there, as all gatherings of believers are there, for building each other up, bearing witness to the Gospel, and praising God. These tasks go on when we meet as a group, and when we meet one-to-one. You can help each other with devotional and prayer life, teach each other about spiritual practices, keep watch for burnout and inner collapse, recommend books or web sites to each other. Or even just give ordinary caring instead of the usual backbiting.

The second is like unto it : let each committee/body/entity be a prayer cell devoted to praying about what it has authority in. I don't mean offering up a quick 'prayer' to mark the beginning and end of meetings. (Sometimes I think Jesus is quite unhappy with us for taking His prayer in vain that way.) I mean really praying over each decision, both during the meeting and outside of it, and taking the time to listen closely for the Spirit's voice among you. Making decisions is a holy task. So why do our parish councils and vestries decide matters in the same way politicians do? And is it any wonder so many people distrust them?
To help you do this, read here about small prayer groups and circles



Churches: Dead or Alive

It is surely true that the Holy Spirit's presence is not determined only by "feeling". But when the feeling isn't there, it's a bad sign. Not everything in life is detectable by logic. Feelings often give us the first signal that something is amiss. There are many things which cause that lifeless feeling, and none of them are good. They may be insulated from its neighborhood, with dead outreach and ministry services that only address surface matters. It may no longer be engaged in vigorous Bible study. It may let the pastor do all the work, with a pastor who is all too happy to have such control. A major spirit-killer, from what I've seen, is that the "dead" fellowships had no community prayer life. Prayer for others is not encouraged, and devotional practices are not taught. They're too busy with themselves to pray real hard for someone else.

The net effect: the members lose touch with real, living faith. There are usually a few hardy souls who are able to live their faith in spite of the deadness around them, but it is just that: in spite of it. I am not alone by any means in observing this. It is in fact a firm part of Christianity's public image, because so many visitors have experienced it firsthand and felt the chill.

It's not a matter of being charismatic; some of the dead call themselves charismatic and some live ones reject it. It's not a matter of being contemporary: high churches can be very powerful and participatory, contemporary fellowships can be dead and remote. It's not a matter of liberal/conservative differences, denominations, or pastoral training, either. What makes a church alive is when pastor and people are eager to praise God, really believe God is worthy of praise, and really believe God has made their lives worth rejoicing about. The Spirit blesses those who care. From that comes living worship, living mission, living social service, effective evangelism. And yes, sparks do tend to fly from it.
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Stale Congregation?

Most Christians go to Christian gatherings which have gotten rather moldy. You know -- sleepy and slow, almost as if rigor mortis has set in to some of its joints? Well, it may not be so lacking in life to those who know where to look and what to look for. But let's suppose you do know where to look and what to look for, and you wish that the dear old place had some spark left in it, but there's barely enough to bother fanning the flame for. There's a lot of that going around.

There are two possible courses of action.

The first is to change where you worship. This would be the right course for:

If that is your situation, then please prayerfully consider finding a new, healthier gathering for your spiritual home, for your own sake. And once you decide, take action as soon as possible, even if it will hurt someone. A spiritually-healthier you will be spiritually healthier for them, too.

The second choice, for those in a less-extreme situation, is a more loving and mission-centered choice : stay put and start glowing. After all, if the place is so dead, they need to hear the Gospel again and be set free. Resurrecting the dead is no big deal for Jesus, He's done it before!  I find that most of the time, this is the better response.

If you're going to get glowing, there are some things to remember for the tough road ahead.

For more, see the article on the role of prayer.

Letting Go and Letting God

Often, the deadness begins to break when the ministers and/or staff and/or lay leadership simply let themselves depend on the Spirit's leadings and the Spirit's empowerments, and stop trying to do it on their own strength and in their own way. You'll grow up in faith in an awful hurry by letting the Spirit lead the way. Most of what goes on will become just a bit different, and then more and more so until you can look back and say, 'Wow, I never would've thought it would work this way, but it has!'. Surrender is how to open the door to gifts galore.


Tarrying

The tarrying meeting goes back more than a hundred years. In the US revivals of the 19th century, people used to linger around and hang out (or, in 19th Century talk, 'tarry') after the formal service was over. At first they 'tarried' for instruction in the Gospel and to speak to someone whocould guide them. Increasingly, they 'tarried' to see if anything strange and/or wonderful was going to happen. Or, to discover additional teachings or practices of the preacher, which were sometimes too strange and cultish to be shown as part of the public activity.

Most non-Pentecostalists, long before this, have had a kind of 'tarrying' after worship, but for a different sort of miracle. They set up chairs, give a few select people the responsibility to pull this miracle off, and the pastor may be there for a while, perhaps even to lay hands on someone in prayer. But it's done in some room other than the sanctuary, usually with too-strong coffee, stale pastry, hardened rolls, maybe a (ugh) fish dish or (double ugh) salad, milk that's a bit past its time, and lots of spilt sugar. The miracle is that people stand around and chat with each other, sometimes introducing themselves to visitors and newcomers, just being friendly and getting to know each other. It's called 'fellowship', when it's done well. It is not at all strange that more people have been drawn into the congregation at this time than have come to it through large rallies. Or, on the flip side of it, when it's done with a closed-minded attitude, they're forming a 'clique', and more have been driven away by the ordinary congregational clique than all of those who have ever left the church because of the scandals of scoundrels, unknown and famous.

It all depends on what you're tarrying for.
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Congregational best practices

Parish the Thought: Quotes on Local Congregations

".... a real congregational life wherein each member has his opportunity to contribute to the life of the whole body those gifts with which the Spirit endows him, is as much of the esse  of the Church as are ministry and sacraments."
----------- , *Household of God*, p.117-118

"In biblical days prophets were astir while the world was asleep; today the world is astir while church and synagogue are busy with trivialities."
----------- , *The Insecurity of Freedom*

"According to the New Testament, God wills that the church be a people who show what God is like."
----------- , *What Christians Really Believe and Why* (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), p.127


Ask Yourselves About Your Parish

For those who were in a Christian fellowship but are not now involved:

For pastors and lay leaders in congregations:

Most churches draw their core members from one specific town or urban neighborhood.

  1. Can you identify that main neighborhood or town, in your own mind?
  2. How well do you know that town?
    • Are there parts of it that members rarely go to?
    • Are there parts of it where your have no active ministry or presence?
    • Are there parts of it that you have few or no members in?
    • Are there parts of it that your parish has never prayed for?
    • Do you know the statistics of the town's socio-economic, age, ethnic, and church membership makeup?
  3. What do the non-religious in the town think of your church? Do you know? Have you asked?
  4. What activities do you think would most cause your non-church neighbors to take part in a church-run or church-led activity? Is any congregation doing that? Are you supporting them in any way?

Your parish has a relationship toward the 'principalities and powers'. Even if you don't think so.

  1. What are those 'principalities and powers', as you see it?
  2. In what ways does your congregation oppose those 'principalities'?
  3. In what ways do you all support or enhance them?
  4. In what ways do you all bypass or ignore them?
  5. What is your personal role in this?

In your worship services, are your front three rows mostly full, or mostly empty?

What are your greeters and ushers like? Are they like that aunt who'd always give you a hug, even when you wanted none of it? Do they give a warm, subdued greeting? Do they hand newcomers a bulletin and ignore them? Or are they like bouncers at the local dance club?

What does your gathering do when someone who is clearly very troubled comes to them?

Not counting what's done only by the pastor, what does your congregation do with other gatherings in your town/neighborhood? Do you support each others' social services? Have joint worship services? Sing together? Pray together? Have outreach together? Hold events? Dinners?
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