Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, 1

Robert Fritz says Creative Tension is produced by the gap between a strongly held vision and a willingness to tell the truth about the present. Like many pastors, I have a strong vision to reach people for Christ: to help people become followers of Jesus and to grow as his disciples. I want that not only in my own ministry, but in the ministry of my congregation. I want it not only in my own congregation, but throughout the United Methodist Church. I want it not only in the United Methodist Church, but in other churches as well. I have a firm conviction that we humans have been created to follow Jesus.

But we’re not. Not only are many of us humans not following Jesus – not only those folks outside the church, but plenty of us on the inside – but we’re not doing so well at making disciples. To put it simply, there is a large gap between my vision and current reality.

Since my vision (or close variants) is shared by many pastors, there has been a large market for books, magazines, seminars and workshops on ideas for ministry. Evidently our current methods are not working, so we need new methods. Over the last couple of decades the idea industry has gotten a fair amount of my money. I haven’t seen much return on my investment, however. While it may be that I’m simply not very competent at idea implementation (and apparently I’m not alone since the surge of idea literature and workshops doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the church at large), my own conclusion has been that new ideas – for the most part – are not what we need. Instead, we need to focus on doing the basics with skill, intelligence, determination, and heaps of prayer. That’s what I lie about Bishop Robert’s Schnase’s approach in Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

Schnase’s book – and the variants I’ve heard elsewhere – are not idea driven. He focuses on practices basic to congregational life: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. There’s nothing new here, nothing most church leaders will need a workshop or seminar to learn. You won’t need to be “trained” to do these things. (By “training” I’m referring to the many programs out there that have come on line of late that require leaders to go off and be trained before they are qualified to participate.)

In my reading, The Five Practices was not at all informative. There were no Aha! moments, no occasions when I said to myself, “That’s a great idea!” Every pastor out there knows we and our churches need to do these things. Knowing isn’t the problem. Doing is the problem. We know what we need to do, we just don’t do it. In fact, I’d even suggest that in many cases our new ideas (often mere gimmicks) have served as a substitute for doing what we need to do. If ideas books are about the How of church life, this book is about the What.

When we see the gap between our vision and current reality – and experience the futility of the many roads that claim to connect the two – we’ve often given in to one of two temptations. Sometimes we start lying (except we usually  use the softer term denying) about current reality. We engage in what John Kotter calls “Happy Talk.” Schnase and some of the other current crop of bishops (including our own) seem to finally have gotten beyond that strategy. The second temptation has been to reduce our vision. We’ve discovered plenty of good things we can do short of making disciples of Jesus and taking up his agenda. We can rationalize just about anything if it makes us feel better about ourselves. Although Schnase may be a bit more positive than I feel sometimes, he does a fairly good job of sticking to high aims.

In future posts I will interact with each chapter of the book. You can read the book for yourself – it’s readily available – so I won’t bother to summarize it. Instead, my objective will be to lift up points I think need emphasis and to question some of his particulars.

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2 Responses to Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, 1

  1. gmw says:

    Thanks, Richard. Good stuff as usual. I’m looking forward to these.

  2. Kim says:

    Your comment about the tension between vision and reality reminds me of Luther’s phrase about the “now and the not yet.” It is true in our personal lives as well as our corporate life in the Body. Or, as John said, “Beloved, it does not yet appear what we will be, but we know that when we see Him, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is!”
    In my town, there is a certain church referred to as the “It” church (kind of like the flavor-of-the-week actress is known as the “It” girl). It’s big, it’s exciting (to those who like really loud music, anyway), and according to my junior high daughter, all the popular kids go there. You can also disappear there. There is no formal “joining,” you just go if you want. While doubtless there are lots of deeply committed believers there, there are also lots of church-hoppers there … people who wander around town trying to find happiness. I have concluded that appearances can be deceiving (duh). Size, programs, even lots of activity don’t really tell the story … because, all of those things can be truly God’s movement, or they can really be friendship with the world … and we know that friendship with the world is enmity with God.

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