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This frame has three dimensions: what we do here (rituals and routines), what we make (artifacts), and the stories we tell (language, myths, local histories, sacred stories).

(A) Artifacts – hymnals.

You can learn a lot by what one finds in a congregation — the very things made specifically for that place. Take a hymnal for example. Where did it come from? Who published it? Does it contain just songs or does it include liturgy as well?

(B) Artifacts – new technology.

Increasingly congregations engaging in both contemporary and traditional music are taking advantage of new technology. Take a look around the sanctuary. Are there speakers or sound systems? Projection Screens and/or computers? What do these artifacts say about the congregation?

(C) Artifacts – pictures.

In most congregations you can find pictures displayed in hallways and offices, fellowship halls and perhaps even near the entrances. What’s depicted in these photos? Chances are, they provide helpful clues to understanding what’s important to the people of this congregation.

(D) Artifacts – websites.

How congregations present themselves online is also very important. Not only does it convey something about how this congregation communicates among its members, it is also an expression of the congregation’s identity.

(E) Artifacts – buildings.

Perhaps the most obvious, and certainly the largest, thing congregations make are their physical spaces. Buildings are themselves sites of culture. The set the stage for what a congregation does and they often play a key role in the stories a congregation tells.

(F) Artifacts – budgets, documents and archives.

Congregation produce an incredible array of documents. From budgets to bulletins, the documents a congregation creates provide insights into the people of the congregation, their sense of purpose, what they’ve done and how they carry out their collective lives.

(G) Rituals & Routines.

Congregations often spend much of their time, energy and resources crafting religious rituals. Whether they’re Shabbat services, Friday prayers or Sunday liturgies, these rituals set aside a special time for worship, religious instruction and marking significant milestones for members of the community.

(H) Rituals & Routines.

While rituals are certainly important, it’s also important to pay attention to the ordinary, everyday routines of congregational life: the meals shares, informal times of fellowship, small groups, hallway chatter and the like. These routines help build relationships among members and they help us feel as if we really belong to our congregations.

(I) Rituals & Routines.

Whenever considering the things a congregation does, it’s also very important to pay attention to who is leading or doing the action. Is it a clergy person or another religious leader? Is this activity for everyone or just for children or just for adults? The actors who make up the activity are just as important as the actions themselves.

(J) Stories.

Congregations tell many stories in many ways. One way is through their use of symbols (both religious and non-religious). Look for symbols of the congregation in prominent places such as worship spaces and places where the congregation gathers. But also look for them in the more out-of-the-way places: on the clothing official leaders wear, on furnishings and in the architecture. How do these symbols connect the life of the congregation to larger stories of the religious tradition, community or the nation?

(K) Stories.

Another way congregations tell a story is through the everyday conversations of their members. Participants share stories with one another about their everyday lives: about their families, their work, how their week went, how they have been struggling or celebrating.

(L) Stories.

The collective lives of congregations are often crafted and curated by those who have been around for a while. How a congregation tells it’s history is itself a very important story worth telling and hearing. Often you can find these local histories told orally and written down.

(M) Stories.

Sacred stories, such as those in the sacred books of a religious tradition, are also among the stories congregations tell. They perform these stories in rituals, they learn of them during times of religious instruction and they seek to connect these stories to those of their everyday lives.

Frame in Action

What We’re Reading

A lot of you are thinking about the buildings you aren’t worshipping in right now. This pandemic has prompted both nostalgia and hard reassessment. What do we miss? What could we still do? What use is the building anyway? One of the most vivid and poignant accounts I’ve read comes from Angela Tarango, and it’s a reflection on “The Gym” at La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. She conjures the sights and […]
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Faith-Based Programming: Four Tips for Congregations

How should congregations aiming to initiate or expand their social service programming go about doing so? We recently published The Arc of Faith-Based Initiatives (2018, Springer) and have both examined congregational social services for about two decades. Our research suggests four critical considerations. What’s your programming focus and will it fill a void? The field of faith-based programming is broad and diverse. The Arc of Faith-Based Initatives examines parenting, transitional homelessness, and addiction recovery programs […]
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Learning about Denominations

Denominations matter more than you may think. Not all congregations are affiliated with a denomination or other national or international religious body, but most are. Even when they downplay that affiliation, it can be a significant part of how they do things.  When students and others observe a new congregation or parish it is helpful to know something about that larger connection. What are the beliefs and rules? Is this congregation typical? The Association of […]
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Studying Congregations in a Pandemic

In the midst of this pandemic, congregations have often been in the news (not always for good reasons). Newspaper columnists are writing about how we need what religion has to offer and how we miss the little things, like singing together, as well as highlighting the creative ways religious communities are staying connected. Meanwhile leaders of local congregations are scrambling to learn new skills, and members are gathering in new ways. Bible studies and committee […]
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Embodying Welcome

In every religious community that has life there are people who embody and extend that life. At Boston’s historic Trinity Church, one of those people is Bob Yearwood. His story invites us to think about all the small things that make up the culture of a congregation. Profiled in the Boston Globe, Yearwood is introduced as the church’s “verger,” a position in the Episcopal Church that includes preparing for the liturgies. That obviously includes making […]
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Why is Church so Hard for Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

“Church should not be another place of struggle. Like school can be a struggle, or going to the store can be a struggle, or getting along with your family can be a struggle, but church should not be a place where you struggle. I think the vast majority of people whose kids are on spectrum are not in church because it is another place of struggle.” This quote from a mother I’ll call Catherine, vividly […]
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What to do about the building

A recent article in The Atlantic proclaimed ”an epidemic of empty churches.” And the very same week the Washington Post asked, ”Does a religious community need its own building to flourish?” Both authors pointed to the reality that buildings are often a problem, and finding the right solution will require congregations and their leaders to do a careful assessment of their resources — but also of their place in the community and their own culture […]
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Who is Your Neighbor? Who Decides?

Immigration has become one of the most difficult issues facing people throughout Europe and North America. And congregations are on the front lines in many ways. Whether offering services to immigrants and refugees once they arrive or protecting those facing deportation, being involved with these neighbors also brings congregations into conversation with a larger public and with legal authorities. Governmental agencies are a part of the community ecology that is invisible most of the time […]
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The Songs We Sing

An important part of the culture of every congregation is the music they experience together.  Whether it is the pipe-organ-accompanied hymns sung in a grand gothic cathedral or the a capella singing of a ”non-instrumental” Church of Christ or the chant of a cantor at Yom Kippur or the festive dance of a Hindu festival or the heavy metal of a praise band or the Muslim call to prayer. Vastly different styles and settings, but […]
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Talking Through History

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Another helpful way of understanding your congregation's culture is to use photos and videos. This tool helps you see things from other's point of view.
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Step Back, Watch & Listen

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