Congregational Studies through Zumba

Congregational Studies through Zumba

I was introduced to Zumba fitness at my YMCA, and I’ve been going to class most every week for over a year now. It’s fun, energizing, aerobic exercise, certainly more creative than calisthenics. I also find that this class connects in surprising ways to congregational life. Each week I notice more and more similarities between a Zumba session and the dynamics of a congregation gathering for and going through worship. I will be sharing these observations from time to time in this blog.

Let me begin with how people behave in arriving and departing.

Our Zumba room doesn’t resemble most sanctuaries in which I have worshipped, except those that are located in storefronts or other institutional spaces. The room looks like a dance studio, with wooden floors, florescent lighting, and floor to ceiling mirrors on two sides. We orient ourselves to face the ‘front’ where the small music box with its speaker sits on the right.

The participants – mostly female – arrive via one of two side doors and, like creatures of habit at church, immediately take their regular spots on the dance floor, adjusting as more arrive, careful to maintain as much personal space as possible. Even without pews, they automatically line up in rows, usually three, until the numbers push them into four rows. This press doesn’t mean that they create an extra row up front. No way! It is created at the back, and they try not to crowd the leader. As the dancers arrive, the few who know each other may chat, but the majority does not, mostly keeping to themselves and exchanging no more than a nod or a smile. By contrast, I find in congregations, that more of the regulars do converse with each other before the service starts, even drowning out the prelude, but in my Zumba class, no background music softens the wait.

Things don’t start until Justin, our instructor, arrives. In fact, our Zumba session is single leader dependent, as are most congregations, I would argue. Although in ecclesial settings, a choir, a liturgist, and ushers join the pastor up front, and we like to think all our attention is on God, were our Zumba room compared to a sanctuary, it would be more like a single, center pulpit over a divided chancel, and all eyes are on Justin. He welcomes us with just a few sentences and invites us to move as we are most comfortable, but we mirror all his moves as the music flows from song to song.

At the end of the fifty-minute routine, the instructor faces us, lifts his hands and moves his arms, benediction-like and says: “Out with hate, negativity, and fear; in with love, positivity, and hope; Zumba!” Participants applaud and, across the last two months, disperse to the ‘postlude’ of the Star Wars theme. A few chat with each other in departing, and many leave by way of thanking Justin. Others exit by the second door without interaction. We’ve all received a dose of what we wanted and expected: a quickened heart rate and an awakened, limber body. After a worship service at church, we might describe the effect as: “filled with the Spirit and equipped for service.”


“Dancing the Reign of God.” Huh??

colorful swirling circles

I came to “Dancing the Reign of God” as the name for my approach to congregational transformation because my research and theological reflection led me there. I studied three Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations that others had recommended as having significantly changed in the right direction: from near death to new vitality and faithfulness. Without going into all the details here and now (I’ll be sharing information from my dissertation in this blog little by little and over time), two findings particularly pointed me toward describing the process of congregational transformation as a dance with the Holy One:

  1. The Reign of God –

One of the beliefs that congregational participants said changed from the time before they had begun transformation efforts to the present was a belief that the majority of their membership held about God. Before – when they were in the malaise of decline – they thought of God more as a distant deity, maybe loving, but not really involved in the nuts and bolts of being church. By contrast, at the point at which I was interviewing them, they reported that they now experience God as present, alive, and lovingly involved in their witness as church.

It was that their corporate belief system had changed: to one of trusting that God not only had a purpose for their church, but was also leading them in it. Said differently, God leading them equaled God “reigning” in the present. It occurred to me that this change of belief represents an enlarged concept of the Reign of God. Instead of primarily being a noun, a realm over which God exercises authority and a territory that only comes in the future, the Reign of God is a verb; it is action, and in relationship. These church bodies now perceived God to be moving and beckoning, holding and signaling to them how to move together with the Divine in the world. In other words, the Reign of God was happening now, as they allowed God to lead them, and this sacred relationship was transforming them into witnesses to God’s reign: the good news to which Jesus Christ himself testified!

  1. Dancing –

One of the traits I observed about these congregations in their present way of being was that the people and the leaders related to each other and to God with a playful grace. There was give and take, laughter, love, and learning in how they worked with each other and acted in the world. As they went about their transformation, it was like they were dancing with each other and with God, plus having fun at it. They now enjoyed each other in the process of being church – another dynamic change from before to the present, another feature of witness that they were embodying for all to see. Don’t get me wrong; they still stepped on each other’s toes and sometimes got in each other’s way. Indeed, some of the conflicts early on in their transformation work were fierce, but by dancing with God and each other, they seemed to have learned how to work through these better until they were fewer and further between. Dancing the Reign of God changed them.

Out of their congregational stories of before and after, and with the help of scripture and process-relational theology, I was able to identify a kind of “choreography” to this dance. All three communities of faith followed turns, moves, and steps as they followed God’s lead that rendered their dancing the Reign of God a practice that sister churches – maybe even yours – might also embrace.

More about this choreography in a future post.

Starting Something New

Starting Something New

I just love this image! According to its caption, these birds are called “blue-footed boobies.” Who knew?! I am drawn to it because, as serious as their eyes look, as imposing as are their beaks, and as hard as it must be to put one foot up while holding your wings in so close to your side, they also appear to me to be having fun.

This picture captures something for me of what it is to start something new – like a blog! It takes discipline and delight. To do a blog is serious business to be sure. You want to say something worthwhile and you want to create the right look. As the blogger, you have access to powerful computer technology, but you still have to learn how to use it, and there is no technology on the planet yet that will magically take what is in your mind and put it on the screen! So in this process I have experienced the challenge of lifting my feet in the air in sync with the software, and there have been obstacles to overcome to get this far. The blog is not yet where I would want it to be, but I’m starting something new and starting is maybe 90% of goal. I am also determined that my blog be fun, whimsical, and life-giving, just as suggested by the dance of these blue-footed boobies.

Some information about me and my Dancing the Reign of God blog:

I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who has recently completed a PhD in Practical Theology from Boston University School of Theology. The degree’s concentration is in congregational studies. My dissertation research was among transforming congregations that had been in severe decline and since have come to experience the joy of being faithful witnesses to the reign of God as it is happening among them and in their wider communities. Out of this research and my own pastoral experience, I developed a process for this kind of transformation, one of dancing to the lead of God. I think its turns and steps promise to assist other willing congregations to share in the change that God is bringing about today in the church and in the world.

I’m taking up blogging on this and related topics at the same time as I am searching for a teaching position at the seminary level and serving as an interim minister in a Massachusetts UCC congregation.

It is my honor and happiness to be married to Steve Vandergrift, to be mom to Nathan, mother-in-law to Alena, and grand-dog-ma to Chloe.