Three weeks ago, I began Lent by sharing how a recent set of talks opened my eyes to how cultural trends are impacting the state of the church. Last week, I shared the first of three significant shifts in how culture is impacting the ways we think about church. This week, I introduce the second: a shift from church behavior being about following rules to living out practices.

We’ve probably all heard stories about people living as if religion is primarily about “following the rules,” whether it’s Catholics not eating meat on Fridays during Lent or being told that you aren’t welcome at a particular church because you got divorced, aren’t heterosexual, or came from the wrong side of the tracks. Traditionally, churches have developed rules—written and unwritten—for all sorts of things.

Rules arise from the desire for specific outcomes, and most originate in high-minded ideals. Rules are usually obeyed because people agree in the desirability of those outcomes, be it getting into heaven, getting God on our side, or raising our children with the best possible chances for life and connections.

Unfortunately, rules can become restricting and confining. Rulemaking can also be abused and harm those who are required to follow the rules. More Americans are seeing that happen, and they want something different from church. Rather than focusing on rules, they want to craft a meaningful and supportive way of life through the development of specific practices that will strengthen their faith. They ask, “What are we invited by God to be doing? How are we to practice sharing hospitality, loving our neighbors, and working for justice?”

Like with the emphasis on relationship that I discussed last week, this focus on practices reinforces the idea that everyone in the community is responsible for the maintenance and strengthening of their spiritual life. It supports the concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” an idea that goes back to Martin Luther and the Protestant revolution that turned the church upside down five hundred years ago. (That concept—that all believers are priests in God’s eyes—was one factor in my decision, decades ago, to not seek ordination in the church.)

Many say we are in the midst of another such revolution, and I concur—and more about that next week. Meanwhile, I invite you to consider what roles both rules and practices have had in your experience of Christianity, whether you’re an active church member or not. In what ways have rules been helpful and/or harmful? In what ways is your faith lived out through practices these days?

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