We interrupt for one week this series on songwriting to bid a fond farewell to an important voice in the contemporary American church, The Practice, a contemplative worshiping community self-defined as “seeking to live our everyday lives more fully in God’s presence so we might be formed by Jesus to be like Jesus. We long to become the kinds of people who can put Jesus’ words into practice for the sake of the world.” The six pillars upon which the founders, seven or so years ago, built this ministry promote being Kingdom-focused, equippers, practice-based, ecumenical, Eucharistic, and community-driven in all their endeavors. Founded by Aaron Niequist and a number of curators, the ministry has been led most recently by Jason Feffer with a similar band of wonderful co-laborers. Ironically enough, this contemplative community was birthed in the midst of an institution not known for serenity and introspection, the suburban megachurch, in this case, the most influential suburban megachurch ever, Willow Creek.
It’s to Willow’s credit that this “experiment,” as Niequist initially defined it, has lasted for these several years. To support for as long as Willow did a ministry so intrinsically out of step with Willow’s (and every other megachurch’s) MO or raison d’être or defining ethos is indicative of a level of high-mindedness not often seen in the pragmatism-rules world of contemporary American ecclesiology (especially as seen in larger churches, whose management strategies so often seem as influenced by Wall Street as by the New Testament). Indeed, The Practice, loved by many (full disclosure: I am in those ranks) for its breath-of-fresh-air willingness to defy all the prescriptive how-to’s deemed common and essential knowledge for “doing church” in the 21st century, was also feared by some for its embrace of a big-tent Christianity, including dipping corporate toes into pre-Enlightenment ways of understanding our common faith (i.e., stuff that doesn’t lend itself readily to highly polished and produced worship experiences). Their informal motto down through the years, “Sunday is not the main event,” has run counter to so many of the unspoken messages coming from so many contemporary American churches. So credit where credit is due to Willow’s leadership team’s endurance, grace that runs out at the end of 2020.
Over the years, the Judson University Choir has been privileged to contribute once or twice a year to worship at The Practice, singing in the round over and with those assembled. These services have been a highlight of our usual year’s worth of choral ministry, so it felt particularly special to help lead last night, near the end of the run for The Practice. Protocols (good and proper) at both Willow and Judson meant I traveled with only four of the Choir’s officers, and half of our contribution came in the form of pre-recorded, in-concert videos of the Choir down through the years, which we have curated on the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts’ YouTube channel. Still, as with so much of our response to the pandemic, anything was far better than nothing, and it felt sacred to be gathered, even with a small subset of the usual, to serve and worship together. An archived recording of the entire service can be accessed here. (Dig our just-purchased, duck-billed-platypus-looking singers’ masks created by a NYC Broadway company.)
At the end of the service, Jason Feffer mentioned the possibility of The Practice moving forward as a church plant, unattached from and unsupported by Willow. I hope this happens. The Practice has addressed a real need in the contemporary American church, one only exacerbated by the pandemic, which has turned all churches into media producers, an existential reality potentially Darwinian in its impact on local congregations, with the fittest churches able and willing to invest in HD cameras, sufficient bandwith, and the like, and the least fit scrambling to keep their doors open. Those smaller fellowships that do survive COVID-19 might very well end up determining that the worship practices heretofore deemed immutably necessary for cultural relevance in 2021 and beyond no longer make sense for them in our current reality. And that might look a lot like The Practice. Here’s hoping.
The Lord be with you!