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Each Christian congregation has a “piety flavor.”

For those of you not super churchy, piety is one’s spiritual “vibe.”

Once this “sets,” it’s virtually impossible to change.

The piety match between pastor and congregation is perhaps the most crucial factor in ministry success.

As Christians, we can play “away games,” and even appreciate a road trip to the other pieties. But we can only have one true “home court” pity.

There may be other “sub-groups,” or even a piety I have not thought of.

But these are the four bouncing through my mind.

They are:

1) Athletic

2) Contemplative (Cool)

3) Warm

4) Hot

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that aligning these flavors is actually more important in predicting success than denominational association or theological angle of the church.

For instance, a “warm” piety Lutheran will feel more at home in a a “warm” Anglican church than in an “athletic” Lutheran congregation.

Please pass this link on to others, especially the leaders in your congregation.

As in so many parts of human endeavor, the feelings “win.” The vibe of a human group is more important than we have realized.

Call it congregational “tribal vibe.”

There are many pastor/congregation mismatches. The worst ones occur when an athletic or contemplative pastor tries to transform a warm congregation into his/her image.

Most pastors going into a mismatched congregation see “vitalization” as changing the culture of their new congregation to their personal piety flavor.

Here are some brief thumbnail sketches:

Athletic

This piety is strident. There is a missionary vibe. “Discipleship” is the prevailing theme. The congregants, and especially the pastor, have serious looks on their faces most of the time.

They mean business.

These folks tend to have strong political left- or right-wing opinions. “Activism” of one kind or another (abortion, racism, hunger, the lost, you name it…) prevails as the reason for gathering in the first place.

Home schooling is common. They all vote.

This group is the one most likely to have highly developed enemy images, and they are invoked often. This creates group solidarity.

This is the home base of the “theologically serious.”

Contemplative (Cool)

Understated and elevated.

These people are consumers of 90% of the candles used in churches. And the most likely to wear tweed.

No plastic or synthetics in the room. Instead: Wood. Stone. Water. Natural fabric paraments and vestments. The organ has real pipes.

These churches are not afraid of silence.

The sermons are oblique, and often float into tertiary reflection (Outloud thinking about what someone else thinks about the Bible text). Listening can approximate being in a flotation tank.

There may be a Taize-style communion station with candles and kneelers in one of the corners.

These congregations have the best table manners at the Eucharist (only group which uses this word), which is fine dining complete with potent “spell casting” sound bites and real silverware.

Choral readings are key. Creeds. Lord’s prayer. Lots of formally-read Bible passages, but no one actually opens a Bible in the pews. The members (especially if they are audio learners) actually learn a lot of Bible over the years, because they hear so much of it every week.

The more committed of this stripe often hire spiritual directors, and aren’t afraid go on silent retreats.

$25 bottles of wine and European cheeses are available at their social gatherings.

The educational and NPR/PBS quotient is high, and the women wear less makeup than average.

Warm

Affection is the overriding theme here. If you aren’t drawn to physical touch and “stiffen up” when people hug you, then you won’t last long in this group.

The music chosen tends to be affective rather than theological. A relationship with God is eros, in a non-sexual way, if that makes any sense to you.

Small town churches of every stripe lean in this direction. Bible camp for grown-ups. There is a profound informality undergirding everything. No one would be shocked if you raised your hand and asked a question during the service.

A large minority of the attendees of these churches are socially and emotionally broken women; many of them divorced with kids. A good chunk of the men are in some kind of 12-step group.

Hands get raised during singing, and there is kleenex available all over the room.

The sermons are therapeutic and encouaging in tone. Favorite Bible texts are the Psalms and the Johannine canon.

There is always a group of folks in these congregations trying to get you to go on the next Cursillo/Emmaus weekend, where many of them were converted to warm piety in the first place.

Hot

Hot is not its own flavor, it is “warm” piety with the intensity turned up. This one can be downright scary to outsiders.

Generally speaking, this is the hard edge of the Pentecostal movement. It feels like just about anything could happen. This is the only flavor where shouting is a common form of communication.

This piety is often the norm in non-Anglo, non-Western Christianity.

Parishioners can fall out in trances and even writhe around on the floor.

Deliverance, and the here-and-now prophetic, are as common as doorknobs.

If you visit, sit in the back.

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Obviously, you can see why the pastor/congregation piety match is so pivotal.

The most pain comes from a pastor trying to “remake” the congregation in his/her piety image. Phrases like “they just don’t get it” are common.

One flavor is not better than another.

The skilled pastor will try to make the congregation into the best version of itself. And will do his/her life’s work in a church that matches where he/she would like to go to church in the first place.

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I have been especially aware of patterns this week.

People all have a certain way of being in the world. A pattern.

There is a Muslim way of being in the world, a Mormon way, a Right-Wing-Fox-News way, a PC-liberal way, etc.

Some of these patterns are potent (Islam). Some are not so potent (mainline Presbyterianism). Some are on the rise (Hipster-ism), and some are on the decline (the “emerging” church).

I’ve done extensive live-in stints with:

Lutheranism

Action Sports World (surf/snowboard)

Theological Academia (22nd grade and a Fulbright Scholarship)

Pentecostalism (even wrote a book on it)

Each “-ism” has abundant self-serving circular reasoning and tribal litmus tests. They have buzzwords and enemy images. Perhaps they are even necessary–but none of them correspond perfectly to naked reality and truth.

It’s a trade off; you get security and you tolerate errors and inaccuracy when you “buy in” to any “-ism.”

I am about to be voted off the Lutheran island for good. Sad, because I have nothing against it, and, on better days, I consider myself one of its more intentionally constructive, original, and helpful thinkers. I appreciate the good in Lutheranism, my family of origin, but I don’t pretend that God depends on it, or that it is the highest possible way of being in the world.

I am increasingly troubled by the American liberal/conservative polarized political thinking. The left doesn’t understand the power and creativity of the free market and globalization, and the right doesn’t understand sustainable environmentalism, and the potency of collectivism for certain public endeavors (fire, utilities, roads, etc.). We are disintegrating into TV attack ads with stupid sound bites. We need an intellectual like Lincoln to come back, who sees deeper nuances.

In any case, these political “patterns” relieve everyone of the responsibility to think.

And the much of the world is just plain out-growing the need for religious patterns. Especially the overwhelming majority of non-fundamentalist global young people. If you don’t believe me, you’re not spending much time with them.

Let’s just have real conversations about who God really is. Let’s pray together. Let’s talk about Jesus and how his message is so different than that of the Buddha (see E Stanley Jones and his “Egg and the Bubble” analogy). Let’s talk about God’s preferred future, and include him in on the conversation, rather than argue about the merits and errors of competing eschatological “systems.”

Does God Almighty really care about the victory of Confessional Lutheranism or TULIP Calvinism? Is he secretly pulling for a return to a stricter Reformed theology? Is he really upset about the idea of married Catholic priests? Is he hoping we finally secure the Mexican border? Is he worried that Health Care Reform will ruin the world he created? Is Oprah his worst nightmare, wrecking his weekly Sabbath rest? Hardly.

Are we willing to set aside our patterns, even ones we love, to seek the truth? Look it right in the eye?

I have this crazy idea that God is real, and that he doesn’t report to a pattern.

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Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

Please forward the link to this essay to the leaders of your congregation: http://wp.me/pGQxY-8T    Thanks!

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