Ritual and Renewal in a Local Religious Ecology
University of Minnesota
How do mainline Protestant congregations foster the renewal of clergy and lay leaders and a sense of vitality and excitement among members? If one congregation does achieve a sense of renewal and vitality, what is the effect on the other congregations in the local religious ecology? Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in various forms of contemplative religious practice in the United States; some Mainline Protestant congregations have begun to incorporate forms of contemplative practice into their regular weekly routine of worship. I propose to study a Mainline Protestant congregation in the Twin Cities area which offers two regular Sunday night worship services labeled as contemplative worship (one Celtic, one Nordic). These services, understood by leaders and participants as innovative, routinely attract several hundred worshippers. My project will focus on the effects of these innovative worship services on a) the hosting congregation, and b) the local religious ecology. Through participant-observation and interviews with worshippers, I will be able to analyze whether participation in these contemplatives services has led to a subjective sense of renewal. I will also conduct a survey of worshippers to determine how many come from the hosting congregation, how many come from the larger religious ecology (other congregations), and how many are otherwise unchurched, to find out whether participation in these innovative services supplements or substitutes for other forms of congregational participation. I will also interview leaders of the hosting congregation about the effect of these services on their congregation -- have they led to a sense of renewal and vitality? This project will contribute to our research-based understanding of the relationship between intentional innovation in local congregational life and a sense of renewal and vitality; it will also further our understanding of the role of "innovator" churches in a local religious ecology.
My sabbatical research comprised fieldwork in two innovative worship services (one Celtic, one Nordic) hosted by a Mainline Protestant congregation in the Twin Cities. I wanted to understand how innovative worship services “work” – for the individuals who attend them, for the hosting congregation, and within a local religious ecology. For individuals, what do these services mean, and how do they fit into an overall profile of religious practices and commitments? For the congregation, have these services led to a sense of renewal and vitality? And have these services sparked innovation in the broader religious ecology? As my fieldwork progressed, I came to understand these services as communities of spiritual practice, which have several different, stable constituencies including, but not limited to, members of the hosting congregation. Contrary to images of religious seekers as “flaky,” participants in these services are motivated by a religious seriousness that is a long-term feature of their lives, but they are not looking for traditional forms of congregational attachment. The hosting of these innovative worship opportunities has been a huge success for the congregation. Both worship services that fill up the church each time they are offered (once a month, for both); this, and the uniformly acknowledged high quality of the liturgy and music, gives congregational leadership and members a feeling of pride and accomplishment. The congregation is gaining visibility through these services, and its members feel good in part because worship-based outreach goes to the heart of their understanding of their religious mission. Finally, these services are not trendsetters in the local ecology; other churches in the area cannot mimic what they are doing, and do not try to. But they are sparking more innovation within the regular Sunday morning worship of the hosting congregation, which is also leading to a sense of renewal and vitality.
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