Community practices towards building a culture | Karen Rohrer [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

Karen Rohrer

My fascination with formational practices started at a year-long residency I did in Center City, Philadelphia, right after seminary almost a decade ago. In that year I served three faith communities, but the animating space for formational practice was a formerly closed, cathedral-like Presbyterian church that had become a sort of avant-garde worshipping community/social service provider hybrid.

Broad Street Ministry took up the questions of what it means to be human and what kind of life might invite us into our own humanity together as part and parcel of the same question. Led by a career social worker and practising Buddhist director of social services, Edd Conboy, the staff confessed over and over that if there is something essential to our humanity in the Lord’s Supper then it matters how we invite the hungry to be fed. If there is something essential to our humanity in our baptism then the way we offer bathrooms, personal care supplies and promises to care for one another matters deeply.

The staff, largely young people just out of college or just out of seminary, encouraged as we were by Edd, had the naivety to believe that our own Christian story must impact our social commitments. And so, during the meals that we served, the supplies and services we offered, and through endless staff meetings, we, as a team, dissected what our practices proclaimed. We had a staff person called a “hospitality enforcer” and while we worked with folks dealing with vulnerability, addiction, mental illness and even violence, we argued endlessly (and not at all hypothetically) about what if anything would cause someone to be banned from the community for longer than one meal – who were we after all to bar someone permanently from the table of grace? We instituted all kinds of processes that avoided lines entirely – as a line creates anxiety and triggers the trauma and fear that there is not enough, when we are called to proclaim a God of enough. And, poignantly, staff created a grab and go “poop kit” that they could grab quickly to support guests dealing with the sort of circumstances that caused them to have soiled themselves – because the promises we make at baptism are not always kept in sterile and hermetically sealed pockets of affluence, but truly become human in the most human of circumstances.

I start here, because this is the backdrop upon which my thinking about practices is formed. Furthermore, because of those practices, the communal commitment to them, the difficulty of them and the tragic and hard but deeply holy space they created felt more like worship to me than any worship service ever has, and because the community I did that work with feels more like my community of faith than any other church I’ve been a part of. When I read James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, and he describes cultural liturgies, that is, the formational practices that serve liturgical functions (whether intended to be secular or not) in our common lives, the liturgy of Broad Street Ministry’s social services is one I think of first. [1]

Carrying this experience with me, I moved in 2016 to Pittsburgh Seminary, where we have since launched our “Certificate in Church Planting and Revitalization”, which invites 15 leaders (pastors and non-pastors, older and younger, seminary-trained and not) into a 15-month process of transformation with their communities. In this programme, our theory of change is that a critical mass of new practices and practitioners can grow up in the midst of current community gatekeepers and make their entrenched boundaries irrelevant simply by their existence. The certificate is meant to clear little spaces for the roots of new practices and new practitioners to take hold and lay claim to a practice of the gospel that is also for them. As long as the gatekeeping is disrupted, the diversity of both traditional and new gospel practices and practitioners will actually make for a healthy church ecosystem. Our programme attempts this both in the cohorts it convenes and the actual educational process we undertake to practice that kind of diverse ecosystem.

Imagining new formational practices and seeking new ways to be disciples individually and communally is one of the major tasks of church innovators. What are the practices – the liturgies, if you will, that we consider in this process? How can we ask the kinds of questions of our practices that the staff of Broad Street Ministry asked, even if we are living alongside different populations than they were?

As I mentioned, “cultural liturgies” is a term coined by James K. A. Smith, marking formational practices that serve a liturgical function in our common lives. He uses the example of a mall – icons on the wall, a Eucharist of sorts shared at the counter, tokens to take home. This example is a little dated now, but you get the sense of it. We do an exercise with our certificate students when we go to a new city where we ask them to participate in a “cultural liturgy” they encounter. We’ve invited students to join a street band, play in a pick-up soccer game, order a beer, walk into stores where they don’t speak the language, and even get to know Falun Gong practitioners passing out flyers. After they return, we ask them questions about their experience. And because learning and practice are both the content and method by which we teach, I invite you all to borrow this for your own context – whether it be a faith community, a learning community or a service community (or all three).

We start by sending people out to explore, but you can also pick up from the in-class moment, asking people to share with one other person about a cultural liturgy they experienced recently, somewhere over the last week or so – perhaps an Uber ride or TSA line, a commercial experience or a traffic interaction. Maybe even just being in a pub. Invite them to listen closely because they will be sharing what they hear their partner say.

We have them talk through these questions:

  1. What happened? What signs, symbols, or rituals did you observe?
  2. Who was the community envisioned or created by this practice? What drew people to this? Who did not belong?
  3. What were the norms of the interaction?
  4. How does the interaction form its participants?
  5. In light of this secular “liturgy”, where is God moving in and through others? Where is God calling us?

This process, for our students, has enabled us to really get at the governing values of our programme, as we challenge ourselves and our students to proclaim values through practice. Those values are:

  1. Risk speaking of God and how God relates to our lives – we hope that this work will push us to allow ourselves to envision that God is speaking and moving in our world.
  2. Imagine a world wherein God is active and we and those around us are invited to participate, even in the midst of “liturgies” that seem secular.
  3. Listen to the holy experiences of those around us, learn from them and let them inform our life together.
  4. Remember that we are not necessarily the ones with the answers, and that the gospel can be borne to us (and in fact we need it to be borne to us) by those outside the church and outside the faith – and that those folks reside in our communities and should be part of our daily “liturgical” lives.
  5. Recognise that this work takes trust and vulnerability, and we aren’t experts on the one way to practise faith.
  6. Practise saying out loud what we are seeing and learning because if we don’t voice and share what we have heard and what we are learning, we don’t fully absorb it.

These values all bubble up in this structured conversation about practices. Be on the lookout for this as you invite folks to share what they heard from their partner; perhaps even articulate some of the values as you hear them. As students reflect what they have heard in this exercise, we often hear generative arguments coming up – arguments about values and their expression, about whether a certain liturgy forms people in this way or that way and what might be better. These conversations are a gift, even if they get tense. The different way we experience liturgies enables us to see their various strengths and weaknesses, so that we can avoid creating a community convened only around our idiosyncratic tastes and experiences. Indeed, these fruitful arguments were part of what made the staff meetings at Broad Street Ministry so long – what really does reflect the reality of communion in our eating together? What properly honours the God-given humanity of our guests? If we did it wrong, how can we do it better?

The arc of these sorts of arguments and conversations serves as a microcosm of the arc we have built into the certificate programme. The courses follow a particular logic that builds the strength of culture to support these conversations as well as cultivating the depth of conviction that enables the action that they eventually arrive upon.

The arc for such work, as we have found it, is this: listening; confessing, repenting and revisioning; sharing life together in formative ways; and facing change as a community. Our courses for the certificate reflect these key postures, with one course focused on each piece and an additional final gathering focused on an intervention each student has crafted in their own context with their community that brings together all those postures.


In the course focused on listening, just as in those staff meetings at Broad Street, our practice looks something like this: We listen to God and to each other in contemplative practices, community discernment processes and one-on-one conversations. We don’t know the answers, and the answers may not even exist yet. We observe, listen and wait as the questions unfold, without trying to answer them too quickly. We listen particularly for the hurts, complaints and pain points from one another and that we have heard from our communities. We give them space to be unsolved. There is space and silence in a sabbath time every afternoon. The content of the course allows us to explore the limitations of the binary thinking and the mind–body dualism of the modern era. We are invited back into our full sense and intuitions as we make space to listen with expectation rather than listening in order to fix.

Confession and revisioning

From the course focused on listening, we move to confession and repentance – as we have taken time to listen openly and without defences, what have we heard that we must grapple with? What truth about ourselves, our church systems and our heritage do we need to face? Who and how is the church called to be? This course has us encountering and discussing the truth of colonialism and mission. There are logic patterns built into the Christianity we have inherited – racism, sexism, heteronormativity, hierarchy, individualism, capitalism, colonialism and empire. If we have learned our listening practice well, we have heard the voices of the hurt. In this course we look at the history of these patterns, where they came from and how they impact the western church to this day. Our listening course built our ability to sit with, acknowledge, mourn and repent of those histories. This course invites us to hear from the voices that have advocated for different ways of being and imagine how we might live as faith communities outside those dangerous, historic logic patterns.

Sharing life together

These first two steps build trust and the muscle memory to sit with and process things that have gone poorly and imagine how to do them differently. From there we can envision and enact how we hope to be together. This is the step the cultural liturgies exercise comes from – what forms our regular life together in worship and beyond it, in this community? How does what we do help to mould who we are? How might we think about this more intentionally both individually and communally? As we live and move in this space of practice, the first two postures continue their work, and the regular rhythm of the community begins to emerge. In this rhythm and structure, trust builds over time. In this practice, we learn that the first two postures were not aberrations but core to who we are, and that we can rely on each other to continue listening, repenting and revisioning what it is to be faithful together.

Facing change as a community

But then, what happens when change comes for us? How do we care well for our community amid this change – lead clearly, tell the truth, practice the faith, live our values, respond pastorally, manage complex change and listen well to our community, without totally freaking everyone out? In our certificate, this is when we challenge students to try it out – they have been listening, they have been confessing, repenting and revisioning, they have been doing life together – so we ask them to identify a change they need to face and walk with their community as they live that change in the context of the first three postures. We look at leadership examples, and particular techniques, we explore the positionality of the leader and the calling of the particular community, but most significantly, in this course, we encourage students to explore and ask questions of their community, now that the community is practised in the first three postures. From there, we’ve found that the community strength and identity often emerges in really compelling ways in the midst of the shift they are facing. And if they manage that shift, they continue to become themselves and are invited into the process of listening, repenting, revisioning and sharing life again.

During this final stage, we’ve seen a politically diverse congregation rally around a community member who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and in so doing, find its mission. We’ve seen a faith community welcome queer kids who were in danger outside into their building to offer a safe space to meet. We’ve seen a white megachurch congregation vision a satellite community in a historically black community that would come into the neighbourhood under the authority of leaders and non-profits already present, committed to supporting and investing in their infrastructure, rather than colonising them, competing with them or duplicating their efforts. We’ve seen secular dinner groups birth spiritual community, and generational patterns of community brokenness be healed with repenting, thoughtfulness, training and equipping. All of these shifts could have been ignored by busy leaders, thwarted by gatekeepers or died on the vine without the regular community practices that brought them to the fore and made them impossible to ignore. But when these shifts were brought to bear in their respective communities, those communities grew closer to their identities, and began to become the specific faith communities they were called to be.

In this work, I have found that we as church people, and just as human beings in community, often want to start in the last step. After all, change is at our doorsteps already and it seems crazy to spend time listening and repenting, visioning and revisioning, sharing life over meals and worries over prayers, when work needs to be done. But one of the things we learn from formative practices we see out in the world and formative practices we do together as a faith community is this: we are not what Smith calls “heads on sticks” – we are full-body, full-hearted people who bring our whole selves to this work. The people we are and the stories we bring inform the communities we will become – and they should. Before we can build a strategy, we must co-create a culture. The reason we do and recommend the cultural liturgy exercise is because those liturgies are what constitute a culture – and all the embedded values, practices and callings therein. Once we can see the building blocks of culture out in the world, we can think about the cultures we are called to create. It doesn’t help much to have a strategy for our faith communities if we aren’t actually yet communities with practices, cultures and callings. But once we know ourselves in these things, we are able to navigate carefully and fully through change. We are able to morph to meet the needs of the moment without losing the core of who we are, because that core has been embedded in muscle memory. As communities of practice, we build a culture that is resilient, considered and valued by each practitioner, innovator and gatekeeper alike. And, in the face of change and in order to maintain unity, Edd Conboy, my former mentor and guide at Broad Street Ministry, who died just a few months ago, would remind us often, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Karen Rohrer is the director of the church planting initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a PC(USA) pastor. Her first edited book, Sustaining Grace: Innovative Ecosystems for New Faith Communities, is forthcoming from Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).

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