Why focus on practices for congregational transformation?

In March of this year, I began working as the Director of Faith Practices & Neighboring Practices at the Minneapolis Area Synod. This Lilly funded project focuses on bringing congregations together to build a toolbox of practices that connect communities to their faith in God and to their neighbor.

As someone who has been working for years in congregations as a community engagement and faith formation leader, I am thrilled to see the Synod taking such an interest in helping congregations to develop authentic practices that can ground communities of faith in their baptismal vocation and their sense of place. More than anything, I think congregations are struggling to engage authentically in their communities as people of faith and this project gives space to experiment with tools and habits that will open us up to some new (and old) ways of being.

I am especially pleased that this project focuses on “practices” as the entry point and sustainability model, because I believe that practices are foundational for community identity and for individuals to find their place within a community’s eco-system. However, I know that the word “practices” can be routinely misunderstood, and more often in Mainline Protestant denominations, practices are intellectually valued, but rarely engrained deep enough to have an impact.

So, why focus on practices in the work of community transformation?

First, it might be helpful to simply define what we mean by practice.

prac·​tice | \ ˈprak-təs transitive verb: to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually

I think this dictionary definition, as dry as it may be, is a helpful first stop on our journey towards understanding practices in the context of faith communities. Practices are those things we do reflexively, even habitually, as communities and individuals. It’s important to notice that practice is a value neutral term, and as we all know you can have good and healthy practices like washing your hands, exercising, and reading and we can have less ideal and unhealthy practices like scrolling through social media for hours on end, procrastinating on projects, and eating an entire pizza by yourself in the kitchen after a stressful day. Ok, those last ones might be mostly a me problem.

Practices are also contextual. We have practices that guide our action at home, at work, and in public. Some of those practices might be part of a larger culture or institution like at our workplace. And some of those practices might be solely our own. Often the practices that we really value operate in many contexts. For example, I have a regular practice of writing every little thing down and capturing it in a space to review later that began as a practice at work but eventually migrated to my personal life as well.

The point is practices are those things that we do on a regular basis that ground our action in a particular context. What gets missed in this definition is the impact this regularity and habituality contribute to our sense of identity. I would add to our definition that practices are those things we do regularly, customarily, or habitually that help to form and maintain our sense of identity. Experts in habit formation will tell you that a habit that contributes to your sense of who you are is far more likely to stick than a habit that runs counter to your sense of self. Habits and practices are very much alike, and I’d suggest that the same question of identity holds true for the practices that we value most.

It is my practice of regular morning and evening prayer that supports my identity as someone who values my relationship with God. My practice of scheduling one-to-ones with my neighbors and community members supports my identity as someone who is invested in his community. These habits and value markers are going to be different for each of us, but the pattern is the same. Our practices undergird and maintain our sense of self.

This emphasis on identity is what intrigues me so much about a learning community focused on developing and supporting healthy and holy practices in congregations. In this framework, we move the question from “What should we do?” to “Who are we called to be?”. This is an important shift for communities of faith because one is rooted in anticipated outcomes that may or may not be met, and the other is rooted in ways of being. One is rooted in anxiety and guilt, and the other is rooted in acceptance and gratitude.

So many of our congregations are feeling the guilt and anxiety that comes with the uncertainty over how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities in our neighborhoods. We’re afraid that we’ll make a mistake, or embarrass ourselves, or do real harm and so we stand stock-still and pepper ourselves with “oughts” and “shoulds” which cement our feet to the ground and stop us from taking action. And the real shame is, we’ve developed practices that maintain and perpetuate this stance. Our preaching (sorry pastors), our practices of decision-making, and our obsession with programming all contribute to this crushing question, “What should we do?”.

But this doesn’t need to be the case. We have exactly what we need to upturn the cart and ask a different question. In our baptism God has named and claimed us and called us Theirs. What happens when we root our practices and our action in that sense of identity, rather than some ideal outcome?

Whether we know it or not, we all have practices that ground our action at home, at work, and in our congregations and that contribute to our sense of self. Unfortunately, we are often not actively aware of these practices and their impact, acting instead on muscle memory and tradition. When we bring our attention to these practices and the formation of new ones, we just might discover something about ourselves and about our ways of being within community. We may find that the practices that undergird our sense of self as Beloved and disciple need a little more attention.

I believe that our practices, more than anything, define who we are as faithful communities. Our relationship to prayer, studying scripture, and discernment reveal the centrality of our relationship with God. Our practices of listening, hospitality, and accompaniment reveal the dynamics of our relationship with our neighbors.

I’m betting that faith communities who devote themselves to analyzing and developing good and healthy practices are far more likely to encounter the kind of transformation and wholeness that we are all seeking so diligently. I’m betting that communities who intentionally develop practices that encourage deep listening, hospitality, faithful interpretation, accompaniment, and the pursuit of justice are likely to notice anew the ways in which God is all ready at work in their communities.

Over the next five years, I am looking forward to digging into these holy habits and our ways of being in community and experimenting with congregations as communities of practice. I pray that together we may learn something about who we are, who are our neighbors are, and who God has called us to be. Amen.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Originally published at https://nicholastangen.com on September 6, 2021.

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Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation. nicholastangen.com

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Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation. nicholastangen.com

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