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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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A lot of us fail to connect with the spirituality and faith of others.

Often we get into conflict with those who don’t pracitce their “piety” as we do.

The word “piety” is a Latin term. It was a highly prized and nuanced virtue, meaning “devotion” or “Spirituality.”

We think that our faith differs from others because of content, theology, politics, or philosophy. And we tend to avoid and mistrust those with a different faith temperament.

The truth is, piety temperament divides us more from others than anything else. We get into arguments with people which stay on the intellecual plane and we don’t deal with the real issues that divide us.

First, it helps to define the three different flavors. They cross all “religious system” barriers.

1) Athletic Piety. These folks use words like discipleship, discipline, and mission all the time. They are evangelistic and zealous. We don’t want to be cornered by them. Left wing or right wing, they tend to be activists and have a cause. Those with Athletic Piety (AP) like books like My Utmost for His Highest. Their preachers love phrases like: if you only knew what was at stake! One more conference! One more book to read! Theology can be an excercise in combat; and many of them gravitate, over time, to Calvin as a guide. Those of you with “AP” will get frustrated with this essay and write a critical comment. Their churches have clear windows. APers contribute a great deal, because without them, who would feed the hungry and transform the world? Their public leaders wear power suits and ties.

2) Cool (or “Deep”) Piety. These are the sophisticates. They prefer Henri Nouwen books and Taize music. If they start to struggle–candles always help; aesthetics in their shadowy churches and shrines are everything. Pipe organs resonate with their very souls. Reflection, contemplation. Ideally, their faith expression would be a succession of Haiku quotes. The sermons in their churches are complex, nuanced, and “oblique,” often with great depth. The first thing they visit in a European capital is the cathedral; and they love stained glass. Their public leaders wear embroidered robes.

3) Warm Piety. This is me, so I’m biased. Please forgive that. There is a lot of human touch (WPers can’t pray for someone without touching him or her) in these faith groups, and a lot of humor in the messages. Their love for the Bible is affectionate rather than theologically rigorous. Rules are just suggestions. People raise their hands when they sing together and talk a lot about a relationship with God; WPers expect God to touch them in one way or another. Testimonies are more important than detailed instruction by the teacher. They love Cursillo weekends and Bible Camp, and they know songs with hand motions. They have the best youth groups. Their mental background music is made up of inspirational, positive quotes. Their leaders wear non-trendy jeans and hooded sweatshirts. They love hugs.

A spiritual community with one “flavor” contracting the services of a leader of another flavor is a recipe for trouble.

We can also be a blend. I can float in the other two flavors without too much distress.

One of the keys to getting along with people is learning to appreciate the value of the other groups:

-Effectivenes (AP)

-Depth (CP)

-Love (WP)

This is all more or less true in most all faith systems. A warm piety Christian may get along better with a WP Hindu than with an AP Christian who drives her nuts. An AP Protestant has immediate resonance with an AP Roman Catholic.

We often feel that we are in a faith community that doesn’t “match” because we were sent there by God as missionaries to “change it.” Not a good idea. It’s malpractice to try to turn a WP church into an AP church. Help your faith community be the best at its own temperament that it can be.

What about “balance?” Also not a good idea; like putting mustard on waffles. Better to stick with one basic flavor in a church or faith community.

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Check out my book on Warm Piety

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