Monday, March 28, 2016

BookPastor >> "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations" (Robert Schnase)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on Dec 8th, 2015.


TITLE: Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations
AUTHOR: Robert Schnase
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007, (144 pages).

Discipleship is one of the most used words in the Christian world, in churches, and in many Christian communities. What is it? How does it look like? What are the fruits of a Christian life? Where are the evidence of a Church that is exercising the ministry of discipleship? According to the Bishop of Missouri Conference (United Methodist Church), Robert Schnase, these are summed up in five practices; namely:
  1. Radical Hospitality
  2. Passionate Worship
  3. Intentional Faith Development
  4. Risk-Taking Mission and Service
  5. Extravagant Generosity
Schnase's purpose in writing this book is to give "permission, focus, and encouragement" for churches and Christian communities to be creative and to be able to grow in all aspects of ministry. He recognizes the hunger in people to want to grow. He believes that any congregation large or small; urban or rural; as long as they are intentional about discipleship and fruitfulness, they will serve well as transformed people. Meant to be used as a discussion guide for small groups as well as those in positions of influence, it is geared toward enabling the work of sharing the gospel with all.

The first is the Practice of Radical Hospitality, a critical ministry that "rocks" with vibrant demonstration of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Like Jesus, it is about serving rather than to be served. It is about loving people the way Jesus sees them. It is about offering shelter to the needy; opening doors instead of shutting windows; inviting the needy; and focusing on the fundamental meaning of hospitality. This is in opposition to many groups that tend to reduce hospitality to a series of programs or strategies. It's a human face to the words: "We are glad that you are here." It is a pledge to walk together with one another through thick and thin layers of life's circumstances. We are warned about how our perceived strengths can also become our greatest weaknesses. For example, a Church can become so closely knitted that they are closed to outsiders. The "radical" in hospitality refers to the restlessness among genuinely transformed believers to reach out and touch people who are not being cared for. That is why they will not be content to simply enjoy existing programs and groups but also to spur new ones and creative initiatives. They are not afraid to fail, only afraid not to try at all.

The second is the Practice of Passionate Worship which is that deliberate desire to want to encounter God. After all, who would want to be part of a congregation that simply go through the motions each week. If hospitality is about welcoming the stranger and others, worship is about welcoming God into our hearts. God called the Hebrew people away from Egypt so that they can worship God. It engages the intellect as one experiences God. It is about devotion to Christ. One sign of passionate worship is how communities come on time, eagerly enjoy the air of anticipation of meeting God. We learn about the dangers of coming into worship like a movie critique, or a critical attitude that tries to rate the various elements of the worship service, instead of just enjoying the flow and worshiping along. It is connecting with one another in unity. Schnase gives tips for pastors and leaders on how to design a service that spurs people to know God, to know one another, and to see the world through the lens of godly worship. It is contextual and reflects the cultural uniqueness of the congregation. There is also a moving story about how a church that traditionally has only one service decides to take the plunge to launch a second contemporary service which breathes new life not only the the new but also to the old. The author also notes that the staff who are committed to passionate worship will spend long hours trying to evaluate each week and make improvements accordingly. When existing congregations are passionate and enthusiastic, surely those outside coming for a visit would be moved. Who knows, they might even choose to come and stay.

The third is the Practice of Intentional Faith Development which moves deeper into the stories of faith, how spirituality is weaved into the everyday life of people. Not unexpected, Schnase tells the story of John Wesley's early small group classes enabled the perfection of faith as one practices love and growing in the knowledge of Jesus. Intentional Faith development is about being passionate about spiritual growth. His observation about the "Middle Doors" is spot on. Many Church congregations are great at welcoming new visitors. Some are effective in getting them to join small groups. Unfortunately, many groups revert to their cliques and their comfort huddles among familiar faces, unwittingly isolating the new faces. For new groups, there is an intentionality not to allow the distant observer or the infrequent visitor to influence the direction of the group.

The fourth is the Practice of Risk-Taking Mission and Service, that in spite of the risks of being unable to bridge the diverse cultures, and the sometimes paternalistic attitudes mission teams from the West bring to third world countries, interweaving cultures of understanding is possible. Apart from providing genuine help for the poorer communities, having hands-on project members will go a long way in changing the lives of volunteers too. The risk actually is NOT having mission teams. The fact is, churches with teams doing outreach are also those with vibrant communities. The word "risk-taking" is intentional as it reflects a desire to go beyond one's comfort zone. It also means that outreach will not always be successful. There is an equal risk of failure too. The point is, churches with an active risk-taking mentality would excite apathetic believers and inspire people toward saying: "This is the kind of Church We Want to Belong to."

The fifth is the Practice of Extravagant Generosity is about giving that energizes faith and faith that empowers giving. It challenges one to be stringent about spending on self and to be generous about spending on others. Believing that giving reflects who God is, Schnase asserts that giving will not only make a positive difference to the work of Christ, it enables one to be aligned to God's purposes. He brings us back to the Early Church whose extravagance rocked the world. Individuals even sold all they had to bless the community of Christ.  It is not just giving without expectation but exceeding all levels of expectation. Such communities of faith and generosity will thrive, not just survive.

So What?
There are lots of things to learn from in this book. Those of us interested in vibrant church communities will find this book an exciting one to begin with. It puts together five practices that are high in implementation and low in pessimism. With the many practical tips and stories to motivate readers, there are moments where I want to high-five the author. At the same time, there is the treacherous pessimism in our culture that threatens to derail even the most noble and practical idea. Like a constant guide and a determined navigator, I remember how the ideas in this book can be motivated by the words of the missionary to India, William Carey who said: "Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God."

According to Schnase, the first four practices are initially inspired by Bishop Bruce Ough who was at that time, seeking to find images to indicate fruitfulness for congregations in the Methodist Church. Schnase not only expands on these four, he adds in a fifth one. Schnase writes:

"These words capture the core process by which God uses congregations to make disciples—congregations offer the gracious invitation, welcome, and hospitality of Christ so that people experience a sense of belonging; God shapes souls and changes minds through worship, creating a desire to grow closer to Christ; God’s Spirit nurtures people and matures faith through learning in community; with increased spiritual maturity, people discern God’s call to help others through mission and service; and God inspires people to give generously of themselves so that others can receive the grace they have known."

This is a must have book to revitalize any Church trending toward monotony and boredom. It is also a book to help keep vibrant communities on fire.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Abingdon Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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