Routine is the Enemy of Meaningful Gathering

“The way we gather matters. Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world…And yet most of us spend very little time thinking about the actual ways in which we gather.”

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering

Is Ritual Routine?

If, as author Priya Parker states; routine is “the enemy of meaningful gathering,” (pg 8) churches are at a disadvantage. Or at least on the surface. We gather weekly, year after year to observe and practice the same rituals mostly with the same people in the same space. This can easily become routine. However, ritual is not the same as routine and I would even say that routine is the enemy of ritual as well. Ritual must be constantly “full” of symbolism and meaning in order for it to be effective. And these rituals must be constantly “refilled” each week in order that be alive for the present participants on that particular Sunday.

But how do we do that well?

I’m a big proponent of good questions and Parker’s questions in chapter 1 of The Art of Gathering are challenging.

First of all, “Why do we gather?” That seems like an easy one! We gather to worship God. But, Parker asks us to push in a little deeper suggesting that it is easy to substitute categories for purpose. Ex: The volunteer training was arranged to train the volunteers. The purpose of the church’s small group was to allow church members to gather in smaller groups. etc.

But categories are not purpose. She challenges us to ask: Is there a specific purpose for this specific gathering? (pg 2) Is our worship service to help longtime worshippers go deeper in their connection to God? Is it to introduce new people to the experience of worship or to God? Is it to teach; to experience; to connect?

And what if it can’t be all of those things effectively at the same time?

“Any number of studies support a notion that’s obvious to many of us: Much of the time we spend in gatherings with other people disappoint us.”

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering

We’ve struggled

We’ve struggled with committing to this kind of specificity at Convergence for many years and it has made things complicated. It is very different to design a worship experience for those who know the “language” and culture of the church than it is for someone unfamiliar or even afraid of those things. Whose expectations are we trying to meet (or challenge?) And, what’s the difference between making room for everyone’s experiences and creating a specific identity for “us?” These are some of the questions I hope to find a response to so we can move on to different questions.

What are your questions? What insight did you gain from reading the Introduction and first chapter of The Art of Gathering? Please leave a response in the comments section below. This is where the conversation starts to happen!

Happy Reading! -Lisa

“I have come to believe that it is the way a group is gathered that determines what happens in it and how successful it is.”

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering

What Do You Think?

Welcome to the conversation! This is the first in a series of blog posts designed to facilitate conversation and reflection on how we gather. Over the next 16 weeks, we will post reflections and questions on the How We Gather Reports and the book The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. The Convergence Study Group for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Vital Worship Grant will be actively engaged in the comments section and invite you to join us!

8 thoughts on “Routine is the Enemy of Meaningful Gathering

  1. Jay Smith says:

    I have a term I made up called “Seminar Church”. I think most churches are seminar churches. You go and sit and listen to someone teach you stuff. While I believe that understanding Christianity is important, I think that is like the first 10% of Christianity. The rest I believe is some combination of mission, community and service. I could easily see a church reading this article and thinking that the answer is to “shake up” their services with a little variety, but I suspect the bigger answer to being too repetitive is in the nature of why the gathering group exists in the first place.

    • vergenow1 says:

      Yes! This reminds me of the comment made at the Vital Worship Grants Gathering in Grand Rapids last week. They encouraged church and worship leaders not to see ourselves as engineers and mechanics trying to tweak something to improve or fix it but rather as gardeners tending to the ecology of a ecosystem. And I think your comment about why we gather (or why we exist as a gathering group) can have a really profound impact on how we “do” church.

  2. Dan ABH says:

    Really awesome thought process and much to reflect on. The points that I immediately began to narrow in on is this idea, that someone said recently 😉 was this idea of churches that are intentionally experimenting with worship, services, gathering, and connecting are called a #BetaChurch This concept of always testing to see what works, what doesn’t, where connection happens, why is happens, and to me right now, most importantly is WHEN IT HAPPENS.

    The other point that is mentioned that’s fascinating was; “It is very different to design a worship experience for those who know the “language” and culture of the church than it is for someone unfamiliar or even afraid of those things.” I believe that “Gathering” with people that are doing things non-traditionally in creative ways is an easier door to open to for people that are “afraid” “unfamiliar” and “inexperienced”. It is incredible to see people that are longing for ways to gather or “learn how to worship” in their own way when they are surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, even if they are experienced. Most of those people are fighting off that prior experience to engage in a different way. I believe that gathering when you are unfamiliar or afraid or a beginner out there risking yourself in front of a bunch of other people who are experimenting, who are also feeling those same things, and a new approach formatted, is an open opportunity to engage God, if you allow yourself to be open. The people and gathering aspect makes this easier for someone like me, because I see God through people.

    • vergenow1 says:

      “It’s incredible to see people that are longing for ways to gather or “learn how to worship” in their own ways when they are surrounded by people who are doing the same thing.” What a beautiful comment Dan ABH! Someone in our congregation shared a major “aha” on Sunday with the realization that no one could tell them that how they worship is wrong. I really wonder what it would look like for us to all come as beginners every Sunday – rediscovering worship for ourselves and inviting others into that discovery process.

  3. Kathy says:

    I resonate with the posts on gathering. I am also intrigued with the beginning of this blog on ritual and routine. I’ve liked many religious rituals because of the symbolism, the connection to others as well as to the past, and comfort in its’ familiarity. Yet Parker’s first chapter is causing me to think more about the purpose of these rituals (among other things). In one of her tips, on moving from the ‘what’ to the ‘why’, she suggests drilling down, through asking questions, until one gets to a value or belief. I wonder what would happen if we did that with some of our rituals and practices. Might it make us think anew about what we do, and why? Or change how we do them so as to move into a deeper experience? I was struck by her example of some people wanting to change the language in the Hindu wedding ceremony, and the push-back that was received. It reminded of criticism I received from a pastor friend who questioned whether or not we had ‘real’ church services because we didn’t use a traditional liturgy. For me, though, our non-traditional structure of service has resulted in a richer, and more meaningful, worship experience. I am now thinking about the purpose of liturgy, beyond the process and category elements.

    As a long- time church attendee I have benefited greatly from those newer to the faith, and church, who’ve asked about the purpose and meaning of certain rituals and practices. I am interested in having more intentional conversations about this. One set of questions that occurs to me is if we want to develop the purpose for our worship services as a whole… for each type of services (e.g. Taize, bible study, communal suppers) … or for each specific, individual worship gathering? I am very intrigued by her encouragement to develop purpose for our gatherings that are specific, unique, and disputable.

    • vergenow1 says:

      Kathy, thank you for this post! I love the questions you are raising. Reading is also making me ask about the specific purpose for the worship gathering and about the ways we do and do not do that at Convergence.

      • Kathy says:

        Addendum: This week in Taize we read I Kings 19: 1-15. What struck me was the question that God posed to Elijah, “What are you doing here?”. I’ve been living with that all week; the first chapter in Parker’s book is an echo of that question.

      • vergenow1 says:

        Yeah. Because this brings in the conversation between those hosting the gathering and those attending. It makes a huge difference to enter something with intention and expectation.

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