By The Rev. Herman R. Yoos
Bishop, ELCA South Carolina Synod
Recently in The State newspaper, there was a series of articles exploring why churches in South Carolina were declining. It was a thoughtful series that basically focused on the difference between churches who meet and worship in traditional ways and those who worship in untraditional ways and places. What was missing for me in this article was not so much the how or the where of worship but the why of worship. Why are people today drawn in the first place to worship, and what difference does it make in their daily lives?
In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider explores the question of how and why the Christian faith spread so rapidly in the first two centuries. His research showed that there were no major evangelism strategies embraced by church leaders. Instead he writes, “The early Christians had a perspective they called patience. They believed God was in charge of events; they knew they were not. So they were not surprised that the church’s growth was uneven. Christian leaders didn’t think or write about how to systematize the spread of Christianity . . . Instead the Christians concentrated on developing practices that contributed to a habitus that characterized both individual Christians and Christian communities. They believed that when the habitus was healthy, the churches would grow.” (p. 74)
“Habitus” was a new word to me. It refers to the deeply ingrained Christian character, bearing and behavior that comes from practicing one’s faith in community and in one’s daily life. Kreider writes, “Above all, habitus is formed by stories, by example, and by repetition; by doing things over and over until they become habitual, a part of our identity.” (p. 39)
In his section on habitus, he mentioned faith practices like:
- Meeting and eating frequently together both in worship and outside of worship
- Praying with confidence that God was working through prayer
- Praising and thanking God in all circumstances
- Memorizing scripture, especially Jesus’ sermon on the mount
- Giving generously for the needs of others
- Serving the poor (Tertullian noted that it was the Christian communities response to the poor that inspired outsiders to say, “Look how they love each other.”)
- Passing the peace, because as Christians, it demonstrated a oneness in Jesus that overcame the rigid class, race and social distinctions of the Roman Empire
- Extreme hospitality – caring for strangers, outsiders and even one’s enemies
- Discerning carefully what in one’s culture to say yes to and what to say no to
- Being truthful – Christians do not swear oaths to Caesar nor cheat others in business to get ahead
- Faithfulness in marriage and family relationships
- Facing death without fear
In reading this book, I can’t help but wonder what our “habitus” as Lutheran Christians in South Carolina looks like? What would happen if we began to put greater emphasis on how we live out our faith in Jesus Christ in our daily lives, rather than how we worship one hour a week? Are there some communal practices we are cultivating together that might deepen our lives of prayer and attention to God and help draw others to Jesus?
One last insight from this book grabbed my attention. “In the early church,” Kreider writes, “it was anonymous Christians, not the officially constituted leaders of the Christian communities, who were primarily responsible for Christianity’s spread. Ordinary Christians – they were the key.” He goes on to say, “Scholars have seen the church’s growth as coming through something modest: ‘casual contact.’” There were no mass evangelism events, no “Billy Graham” like crusades that account for the spread of Christianity in the first 300 years. Instead it happened through neighbors talking with neighbors at work or in the market place where non-Christians could observe the character and habits of Christians up close.
What this suggests is that these same opportunities are just as available to us today as in the early church. Perhaps it is not how or where one worships on Sunday that draws others to Jesus Christ, but rather how one lives one’s faith out the other six days of the week. Perhaps we should become more focused on teaching “faith practices” like prayer, generosity, concern for the poor, and extreme hospitality, because people are paying attention not just to our words but to our actions, to our habitus. This is a hopeful word that suggests the decline in church attendance that we are going through today can be reversed by ordinary Christians through casual conversations that touch, bless and impact those who do not know the significance of God’s grace. Remember the 60s hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love?” Those words may be even more true today than we think.
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Allice Mackell is a retired Methodist minister. When she was ordained as an elder, she received a gift. The gift was Protestant prayer beads.read more