the local parish-congregation.

Best Practices For Local Churches

On Christian Spirituality Congregational Best Practices

Churches: Dead or Alive

It is surely true that the Holy Spirit's presence is not determined only by "feeling". But when there's no feeling there at all, 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. Yes, it *may* be just you. But then again, maybe it's not. Your church may may have insulated itself from its neighborhood. They may have dead outreach and ministry services that only address surface matters. They may not be studying the Bible in earnest. They may let the pastor do all the work, or have a pastor who is all too happy to have that much control. They don't pray much together, 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 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 a firm part of Christianity's public image. That's 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. Liturgical churches can be powerful and participatory, contemporary fellowships can be dead and remote. It's not a matter of liberal/conservative differences, denominations, educational levels, or pastoral training, either. What makes a church alive is when pastor and people are eager to praise God, 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.

This article has a few ideas that might help a congregation step forward from where it is now. At the bottom, there are a series of questions to help you dig deeper into your church's current situation. Go through each of them, either by yourselves or with others. Maybe you'll find out something you can use for your church.

Understand Your Neighborhood

Many Christian gatherings call themselves "community" churches or "parishes". Both terms refer to the geographic area that the congregation serves. Or, they may caption their name with "A Neighborhood Fellowship" or "The Neighborly Church". But ask any of their neighbors what that church does, and they'll 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 areas, 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 the community's institutions, such as schools, libraries, businesses, government offices, or social service centers. 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 can act as a ground floor for what you do next. They're not 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, 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 Congregation

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 schools of thought which compare to those of today. (For instance, those who followed Peter or James had conflicting beliefs on non-Jews and on holiness.) 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 gathered believers, "the Body of Christ". The Spirit calls the Body back to the original experiences, the discoveries, the identity, so they can follow Christ through each day, and beyond. The Spirit can work in forms and strategies, but is much more interested in what makes the church the church -- such as the Gospel message, the Kingdom vision, and Christ's love for those who don't know or accept the vision. These have already been revealed, and they're meant for everyone. And because people gather in towns and neighborhoods, so does the Church.
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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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Spiritual Church Committee/Board Meetings

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 board/church committee is not there firstly to make decisions. It has a mission, a purpose, that of the Church. It is there, like all gatherings of Christ's followers, 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's devotional and prayer life, or teach each other about spiritual practices. You can 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 church committee be a prayer cell, devoted to praying about what it is in its authority. 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, inside and outside of the meeting. Then, 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 councils and committees?

To help you do this, read here about small prayer groups and circles.


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 any rock-'em, sock-'em strange wonders were going to happen. Or, to discover additional teachings or practices of the preacher, which were sometimes too strange and cultish to be shown in front of the public.

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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