What is a Christian practice?

Christian practices are shared patterns of activity.

In and through them, life together takes shape over time — in response to and in the light of God, as known in Jesus Christ. Woven together, these practices form a way of life.

Each practice is a complex set of acts, words, and images that addresses one area of fundamental human need:




Making music.

First of all, practices are things we do.

A child or adult can participate in a practice such as hospitality through warm acts of welcome, even without comprehending the biblical stories and theological convictions that encourage and undergird this practice. Most of our practicing takes place at this unreflective level, as we go about our daily living.

At the same time, practices are not only behaviors. They are meaning-full.

Within a practice, thinking and doing are inextricably knit together. When people participate in a practice, they are embodying a specific kind of wisdom about what it means to be a human being under God — even if they could not readily articulate this wisdom in words.

These are practices in which Christian communities have engaged over the years and across many cultures. It is now our responsibility to receive and reshape them in lively ways in our own time and place.

Central themes of Christian theology are integrally related to each Christian practice.

Our practices are shaped by our beliefs, and our beliefs arise from and take on meaning within our practices. A practice is small enough that it can be identified and discussed as one element within an entire way of life. But a practice is also big enough to appear in many different spheres of life. (For example, the Christian practice of hospitality has dimensions that emerge as (1) a matter of public policy; (2) something you do at home with friends, family, and guests; (3) a radical path of discipleship; (4) part of the liturgy; (5) a movement of the innermost self toward or away from others; (6) a theme in Christian theology; and probably much else.)

Notice that each of the practices (keeping sabbath, honoring the body, hospitality, discernment) necessarily leads to the others. In fact, you can tell when you are doing one well when it necessarily involves you in the others. But (for example) if you are practicing hospitality so intensely that you neglect sabbath and don’t honor your body, your practice of hospitality is misshapen.

Each practice…

  • Involves us in God’s activities in the world and reflects God’s grace and love
  • Is a complex set of acts, words, and images that addresses one area of fundamental human need
  • Is learned with and from other people
  • Comes to us from the past and will be shaped by us for the future
  • Is thought-full; it implies certain beliefs about ourselves, our neighbors, and God
  • Is done within the church, in the public realm, in daily work, and at home
  • Shapes the people who participate in the practice, individually and communally
  • Has good purposes, although it often becomes corrupted
  • Comes to a focus in worship

Why does all this matter? How does this idea of “practices” help us think about — and live — the Christian life?

  • It points beyond the individualism of the dominant culture to disclose the social (i.e., shared) quality of our lives, and especially the social quality of Christian life, theology, and spirituality. Our thinking and living take place in relation to God and also to one another, to others around the world and across the centuries, and to a vast communion of saints.
  • It helps us to understand our continuity with the Christian tradition in the midst of a culture infatuated with what is new. The way of life we are describing is historically rooted. Practices endure over time (though their specific moves have changed in the past and will surely change again). Caring for a living tradition means encouraging adaptation and inventiveness within ever-changing circumstances. The history from which Christian practices emerge is expansive, encompassing many cultures and denominational traditions.
  • It makes us think about who we truly are as the created and newly created children of God. An important claim is that Christian practices address “fundamental human needs.” We live in a culture that is very confused about what people need—a culture where “needs” are constructed and marketed. In contrast, awareness of Christian practices helps us to reflect theologically on who people really are and what we really need.

All of this means that people need to craft the specific forms each practice can take within their own social and historical circumstances. This approach thus requires attention to the concrete and down-to-earth quality of the Christian life. It invites attention to details such as gestures and the role of material things. This crafting is an important responsibility of ministers and educators.

Ultimately, Christian practices can be understood not as tasks but as gifts. Within these practices, we do not aim to achieve mastery, but rather to cultivate openness and responsiveness to others, to the created world, and to God.

What about other practices?

Some additional practices cry out for attention today. If we were identifying indispensable and endangered practices that are urgently needed today, the list might be somewhat different.  

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan [and Ukraine], and the perilous stockpiling of weapons at home and around the globe, we could argue for including the Christian practice of Peacemaking. In exploring this practice, we would encounter the nonviolent way of Jesus, centuries-long arguments about just war and pacifism, and courageous contemporary practitioners of reconciliation. 

As climate change endangers our planet home, we could seriously consider identifying Caring for Creation as a distinct practice. (It is now one aspect of Household Economics.) This is a hands-on local practice with global reach that is deeply rooted in Scripture and important in the historical and contemporary witness of many Christian practitioners, though disregard for creation’s well-being has also distorted this tradition at times. Christian practices do more than address fundamental human needs and conditions; they also respond to God’s active presence for the world in Christ Jesus by fostering care of the larger oikos of which we human beings are part, the household of Earth. 

Increasing public concern about what and how we eat suggests widespread yearning for another life-giving practice, one we sometimes call Breaking Bread. This concern often emerges when people become aware of the harm done by prevailing patterns of production and consumption — widespread hunger, environmental degradation, animal abuse, bad health, alienating mealtimes — and deepens as they discover the pleasures of good food that is justly produced and generously shared.

What practices do you believe need our attention today? 
Adapted from Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People and "What is a Christian practice?" by Dorothy Bass (download the full essay here).


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Susan R. Briehl

Adapted from the Practicing Our Faith study guide.

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Lisa-Marie Calderone-Stewart

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Dorothy C. Bass

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Martin Copenhaver

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