Excerpt from ‘Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities’

A new kind of congregation is emerging, one in which tried and true practices are expressed in creative ways. To develop innovative ways of expressing these practices, talented leaders — both clergy and laity — are developing congregations shaped by unique, contemporary expressions of time-honored religious practices.

The focus of these new, emerging congregations unfolds naturally from their setting. These congregations almost always have a focus beyond worship itself: growing and serving food, collaborating with other nonprofits, providing resources for musical and theatrical performance, befriending the homeless, celebrating Appalachian culture, and much more. The focus itself does not constitute the tried and true practices expressed in creative ways. However, the focus is upheld by time-honored practices such as shaping community, conversation, artistic expression, breaking bread, community engagement, and hospitality. The creativity comes from the stuff of the community, not from something that can be acquired off the shelf from a distant location. This juxtaposition of tried and true religious practices expressed in a highly contextualized manner leads to what we call divergent churches.

The kinds of congregations we learned from take many different forms. These divergent communities include nonprofit/congregation hybrids; multicultural communities; coffee shop, pub, and food-oriented churches; businesses combined with churches; churches focused on a particular social need like homelessness or housing; congregations of particular groups of people like cowboys or members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) community; house churches or dinner table churches; gatherings that have a spiritual intent but may or may not meet the definition of a congregation; satellites and multisites; denominational church plants that do not look like previous efforts; and so forth.

Yet, the visible innovations aren’t the only creative expression of these congregations. What is most striking about these divergent congregations is how the leadership has taken a time-tested practice and made it shiny and new in their present context. Such reconstituted practices bring people closer to one another and to God.

We wrote this book as a witness for these congregations. We believe they represent a bright future for faith communities. That bright promise is born out of discontent and critique of some expressions of Christian religious life, but also — and more importantly — ingenuity, persistence, risk-taking, patience, urgency, and deep tugs on the soul for something new. The premise of this book is that people from many representations of religiosity and belief are creating faith communities that reflect the basic human need for connection to the Divine, for connection to one another, and to contribute to the flourishing of the world. …

Through this book, we are witnesses to an awakening. We’re asking others to be awake to it as well. Our aim is to demonstrate the importance of simply (or not so simply) being aware to what changes are happening and who’s making them and why. Listening to another and then telling a story is a simple concept in terms of human interaction. Yet, we think bearing witness to something that is good and life-giving has an exquisite purpose.

Something essential to being human is at stake. What is at stake is more than the survival of the church. What is at stake is more than organizational vibrancy as it relates to congregational life. What is at stake is the human yearning for meaning and transcendence.

Making meaning out of life is a basic human impulse, and connecting with and understanding the Divine is part of that quest for meaning-making. Because gathering with others to experience the Divine is a basic human impulse, formalized religion and spirituality is a foundational element of human experience. Congregations aren’t going away; neither is congregating. Healthy, organized expressions of religion and spirituality contribute to human flourishing.

As these divergent churches emerge with new ways to connect to the Divine, the people involved in these will touch their cities, neighborhoods, workplaces, families, and friends. Supporting the health of these expressions is both a validation of these faith communities and an immersion into vibrant religious experience.

Excerpted from “Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities,” by Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris, published by Abingdon Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What do you do when your congregation chooses to do something new? Perhaps your congregation wants to start a homeless ministry. Maybe your congregation is working on renovation of the building and it has been more than a decade since a significant building project. Perhaps you and your colleagues want to encourage faith formation in a different way. The new thing could be addressing a long-term issue that the congregation has avoided. No one needs help in creating a list of new demands on a congregation. Each can seem like starting a deep-space mission. Your congregation is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways that it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.

If the tasks are unfamiliar or if the content and the process are not clear, then your congregation will need to learn new behaviors in order to achieve your goals.

What is learning? Learning is durable change in behavior. It almost always emanates from experience. You read something (reading is an experience). You now think differently. Or you are at a workshop. The teacher describes a fresh way of doing a task. You go back home. You try something unique. You reflect on your experience. Repeat. Now, you have learned. The change endures.

Of course, for a congregation to learn new behavior, individuals who are part of that congregation need to learn. It is possible to assert that organizations learn. When organizational learning takes place it is because individuals engaged with one another are taking on new ways of thinking. The individuals experience durable behavioral change as part of the organization.

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Accomplishing new things requires organizational learning. Think back on a time when your congregation accomplished something new. You might say that your congregation started a new program. If it is indeed a new program, then it is more accurate to say your congregation learned to start a new program. Did your congregation reorganize its committee structure? It is more precise to say that your congregation learned a new way of decision making.

Learning is a comprehensive frame that encompasses many approaches to building congregational capacity. For example, some frames emphasize leadership. Some highlight a specific theological perspective. Some paradigms focus on external assessments, such as understanding a local community or a particular generation of people. Some approaches involve naming and claiming strengths. Your congregation may have used these approaches to acquire new knowledge. You then turned that knowledge into new behaviors.

One congregation started their path to achieve something new because of babies. The conversation began in the basement of the church. A woman sitting in a rocking chair was with three others. She remarked, “I used to rock all my babies. Every night we fell asleep together.” Her friend said, “I just read that our town has babies that need rocking.”

This conversation led to more. Soon the two women were talking with their pastor about starting a rocking chair ministry for babies at the county daycare for infants and toddlers. A brief announcement in worship a month later yielded nine volunteers. When the church volunteers showed up at the daycare to sign up, they were met with a friendly but firm “no.” It turns out that you can’t just show up and be handed a baby. You have to be trained. Volunteers have to participate in a six-week course in proper and tender care of infants. The school needs to run background checks. The director has to meet with the pastor. For this congregation to begin a new program, individuals were going to have to learn new ways of doing something as natural as holding a baby.

That’s exactly what happened next. This group of nine women and men began a journey to learn how to do ministry at a public daycare. They reported back to the church board. They registered for the training class. The congregation hosted three civic conversations that covered public health issues and psychological dynamics like attachment theory. During Lent, the pastor preached on baptism and public ministry. The congregation learned new behaviors related to working with a nonprofit. As a community of faith, individuals learned the new behavior of rocking babies to sleep, not at home in the nursery, but in a public setting for the common good.

Education versus training

Congregations that learn new behaviors go on a discernible learning journey. An identifiable model can be observed in congregations that learn to do new things well. This book will take you through this model, or what I’m calling a “journey.” Yet, before we start such an expedition I want to note that not all endeavors in the congregation need to be conceived as a learning journey. Not all endeavors in the congregation require acquisition of new knowledge or different behaviors.

Educator Robert Kegan notes the difference between education and training. Training is an informational stance. It leaves your view of the world essentially the same. Education is different. It changes the essential nature of who you are. The word education is built out of the Latin verb that means “to lead.” Education leads you out from one construct of life to another. Education is what leads to transformation.

Excerpted from “How Your Congregation Learns: The Learning Journey from Challenge to Achievement,” by Tim Shapiro, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



This interview was produced in partnership with the Congregational Resource Guide (CRG).