calendar July 17, 2014 in 2014 Assembly, Assembly, Congregations, Resources

Nurturing Vibrant Congregations

Growing the vibrancy of a congregation is not something that can be imparted by a new pastor or a consultant, but is the result of congregations taking ownership of the need for change, understanding any gaps between where they are and where they want to be, and experimenting with ways to make faith useful to participants, according to the Vibrant Congregations Project, an initiative of Luther Seminary.

“The big opportunity is to connect the faith story to daily life,” the Rev. Dr. David Lose, one of the project’s lead researches, told two packed forums at the 2014 SEPA Synod Assembly in May. Lose, incoming president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, shared a number of key findings from the process of congregational self-study and experimentation conducted over more than a year with 38 congregations from six Christian traditions in the US and Canada.

 

Watch video of Lose’s forum presentation:

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Use this video for discussion and study with your council and other key leaders. Click the “Nurturing Vibrant Congregations” link above to visit our Vimeo page and download the video for local use.

 

The study looked at four key areas – vocation, Biblical preaching, stewardship and Biblical fluency – surveying and interviewing more than 5,000 persons, Lose said.

The research shows that it is important for congregations to go through a process of discovery to paint a realistic, non-judgmental picture of where they are. For example, congregations working on stewardship were asked a series of questions about how often they heard about finances growing up or discussed money with trusted friends as adults. The vast majority reported being involved in these conversations “never” or “sometimes,” and said money was rarely approached from a faith perspective, Lose reported.

Knowing this makes a difference in approaching stewardship in a congregation. “If most of our people never talked about money growing up and rarely heard it discussed, it’s not enough to say, ‘Here’s the budget, and we need you to give more,’” Lose said.

Surveys also showed that for 90 percent of participants the sermon is the primary source from which they get a deeper understanding of the Bible. “It makes me nervous,” Lose said. “The sermon is 12 to 15 minutes as often as one comes to church. That’s clearly not enough” to make deep connections with daily life.

The research also showed that while few participants experienced Bible reading in their household growing up, many reported reading the Bible themselves as teens. If teens are reading scripture more than adults and families – just 6 percent of ELCA members report participating in some kind of Bible study – youth might be an important asset in helping expand Biblical fluency, Lose said.

One congregation helped members engage the Bible by distributing the next week’s passage and two reflection questions by email the Monday before, giving people an opportunity to make the story their own by the time they heard the sermon, Lose said.

Even doing research with congregations that self-identified as willing to change, many of their “experiments” were at first very safe, Lose said. “Experimenting is hard because we have expectations” of how things should be that are hard to let go of, he said.

He told the story of one congregation in which a member was asked to give a testimony of how she was doing after her house was destroyed by a wildfire. Members complemented the talk as “like a sermon,” and even the preacher wondered how her sermon would compare. But when Lose asked if it would have been OK for the woman’s testimony to have been the sermon that day, everyone – except the preacher – said “no” because the lay woman was not a priest.

One way to change those expectations and find permission to experiment is to change venues, the research showed. One Twin Cities congregations had a strong Wednesday night program even as regular Sunday attendance became more sporadic, so they piloted a worship service that night, in the fellowship hall. The new space allowed leaders to change things up and the service became the most highly attended at the church – while participation in Sunday services did not decline, Lose said.

Finally, Lose said that successful change requires us to rethink leaders’ role in making change. It is crucial for there to be a champion for the change, and that works best if the champion is the senior pastor – or the pastor regularly shows support for a lay or staff champion, Lose said. But leaders cannot create lasting change by themselves. “Change happens when participants want it,” he said. Leaders “cannot make people change, but we can set the conditions in which people can change” themselves. — Robert W. Fisher

 

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