Thriving Congregations. Part 1: Challenges to Becoming and Sustaining A Thriving Congregation
NOTE: Columbia seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning has launched its Lilly-funded Thriving Congregations program, “reKindle: A Congregational Development Initiative.” Selected congregations will be awarded grants of up to $15,000 to execute a thriving congregation initiative in their ministry context. Applications are due by April 30, 2021. For details click HERE.
We surveyed and interviewed over twenty pastors to solicit their insights on the challenges to becoming and sustaining a thriving congregation.
All have been in ministry for at least two decades, so they have experienced firsthand several waves of change.
All have successfully helped their congregations navigate those waves and adapt to changing realities from their immediate contexts and broader cultural and societal challenges.
If we were to identify one overarching theme it is the changing context of congregational life and ministry.
As one Methodist pastor put it, “We’re in a liminal period whose experience has been intensified by the COVID-19 virus. It is a highlighted circadian rhythm of “Life – Death – Resurrection.” We’re waking up and finding we’re deep in Holy Saturday.”
Another pastor, now over twenty years into his tenure in his congregation summed it up this way: “The challenging shifts include: 1) a “consumer” orientation. Our entire culture is now engaged almost entirely via the cost/benefit lens, including churches; 2) Anti-institutionalism, not new, but perhaps stoked by growing fervor for the sexy, novel, and innovative initiatives (especially among younger generations); 3) Societal regression, a rapid increase in the characteristics of anxious systems (blame displacement, quick-fix mentality, polarization, etc.); 4) Instant everything, convenience and choice preeminent values (fed by the likes of Amazon and Netflix). Thriving Churches will be required to address all of these.”
Taken as a whole, the pastors’ responses clustered in four areas of challenge:
Internal Communal/Congregational Challenges
- Diminishing opportunities for the accumulation of competencies in congregational leaders
- Lack of clarity of what constitutes “membership”
- Lack of theological and values-informed stewardship resulting in decreasing revenue from members in a consumerism-oriented culture
- Lack of clearly held guiding corporate principles and values resulting in a lack of capacity for discerning truth from falsehood; good from the morally evil
- Intergenerational issues challenging the generative practices of faith community
- The increasing burden of large buildings and campuses with a failure to see them as assets for missions and ministry to non-members
- The passing of the “builder generation” with its diminishing financial support and institutional loyalty
- Difficulty in sustaining deep and meaningful congregational relationships in a transitory culture
- Church ceasing to become a meaningful and sustaining context for engagement for one’s family (in and out of the church context); a failure to cultivate a multi- inter-generational community of faith due to targeting specific generational membership
- The challenge, and failure, in cultivating a corporate identity as a community of faith in an individualistic and increasingly secular culture.
External Cultural and Social Challenges
- A consumer-minded, convenience-oriented membership culture increasingly demanding “services” and programs; churches mimicking, embracing, or catering to the culture
- An increased tendency for church-hopping
- The online and virtual church is here to stay resulting in “defining down” the meaning of “community”
- Further erosion of Sunday morning as “sacred” resulting in competing choices for members
- The increasing influence of secularism with the decrease of the Church’s influence in culture and the public square
- Paradoxically, the increasing influence of the more reactive expressions of faith (e.g., Christian exceptionalism; suspicion of the sciences)
- The challenge of providing prophetic civility in an increasingly reactive and partisan culture
- Being overwhelmed by the need to respond prophetically and tangibly to issues of poverty, injustice, inequality, racism, etc.
- Acceleration of a move from institutional authority to the individual. A postmodern critique and relativism brought on by the influence of individualistic autonomy and loss of a larger narrative that defined what our lives were about and was generally accepted.
- Growing influence and significance of technology and a lack of resources to keep up and compete
- An increasingly “diverse” culture that is outside the norm of most mono-cultural congregations.
- The impossible task of needing to be nimble enough to meet the challenges of constant
- change and anticipating transitions and trajectories, both normative and crisis-oriented
- The increasing difficulty to practice self-care and its resulting stress
- Finding supportive and meaningful peer relationship
- Lack of access to persons with expertise to help with challenges
- Managing Diminishing resources (finances, clergy and staff continuing education benefits, etc.)
- Lack of competencies in practical “change skills” (management, supervision, conflict management, organizational development, ethnography, community development)
- Trepidation and timidity in talking about money and stewardship.
Theology and Mission
- The continuing biblical and theological illiteracy of church members
- A lack of a frame of reference for a “theory for the practice of ministry” (e.g., a theology or framework) to inform discernment and decisions about church actions
- A lack of understanding, or naive grasp, of the nature of congregational systems.
Collectively, their observations echo Walter Brueggemann’s critique: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” (Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own (Westminster John Knox, 2016) pp. 2-3)).
Are these challenges familiar to you? Members of the reKindle cohort will explore these challenges. Consider applying for the reKindle program and grant.
Part 2: Characteristics of a Thriving Congregation coming soon.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).