Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Differences Congregations Don't Make... and What to Do about It

Congregations Make Little if Any Difference in People's Lives
Image: Public Domain.
The Barna Group recently released the findings of their study called "What People Experience in Churches." A primary criterion they used to decide who could give them valid information in their otherwise random sample was whether people were "practicing Christians." They defined practicing Christians as "adults who describe themselves as Christians, attend a worship service at least once a month, and say their religious faith is very important in their life." Since attending worship was one of these criteria, I've also written a post about this study on the United Methodist Worship blog.

There, I was looking more specifically at worship practices that do or don't make differences and the kinds of differences people say worship (which is the primary common activity of congregations) actually makes.

Here, I want to look at the same data with a slightly different lens-- one that explores a significant limitation of congregations this study reveals across the board, no matter their size, tradition, or the generation (age) of the persons interviewed. 

In every case, the Barna data shows, the percentage of people saying "Attending church affected my life greatly" turns out to be fairly small, and always less than 50%. The highest reported positive response rate to this was 43% from non-Mainline Protestants. The positive response rates based on age and size, however, show results in the 20%- mid 30% range. Indeed, as Barna reports, 46% of persons attending regularly reported participating in a congregation did not affect their lives at all!

Let me try to summarize this bluntly. The vast majority of church attenders, 2/3 or more, report that congregations either do not or only marginally affect their lives. 

Even more to the point, perhaps: Congregations make little or no difference in the lives of most people who attend them.

Shock and Horror? Or Wake-Up Call?

Barna's reporting of this finding doesn't make much of this, apart from reporting it. There is no mention of ways to address this reality in their concluding summary, apart from noting that "Millions of active participants find their church experiences to be lacking." They go on to recommend that congregations work at finding ways to enhance people's participation in congregations, apparently on the theory that enhanced participation would equate with higher levels of transformation.

But they provide no evidence at all for that theory. Indeed, as we know from Willow Creek's Reveal study ( from a few years ago, the reality is that higher levels of participation in congregations do not correlate at all with higher levels of personal transformation or discipleship to Jesus. Not at all. 

That doesn't mean congregations are useless in transformation or discipleship. It does mean they're simply not very good at it-- or at least not good at helping people actually go very far with it.

What Reveal shows is that the congregations can be pretty good at helping people have an initial encounter with Christ, and even at fostering a "falling in love experience." But they generally don't do a good job at all-- no matter how amazing their worship is and no matter how many small groups they have inside them-- at moving many people very far in terms of maturing, much less maturity.

As the Wesleys might have put it, congregations can help people encounter Christ and maybe even begin to believe they want to follow him (prevenient and justifying grace). Congregations may provide that kind of foundation for people-- and people do value that.  We can see this in Barna's data, too-- as fairly sizable percentages in every size, generation, and tradition reported  that congregations help them have a feeling of connection with God, even if they also report those feelings are infrequent.

But congregations across the board do little to help people learn actually how to follow Christ or come to "have the mind of Christ" (sanctification, moving on to perfection/maturity). That's because congregations are not, at their core, discipling communities. That's what discipling communities are for!

And that's why Methodism came to exist in the 18th century-- to provide a venue and formats of Christian community, in addition to (and not in competition with!) congregations, where people could far more regularly experience and grow in sanctifying grace, by attending to all the ordinances of God, making use of all the ordinary means of grace, living out the vows of the baptismal covenant by following the General Rules, and watching over one another in supportive and challenging love as they did so.

This is also at the heartbeat of the emerging missional movements and many organic church movements today. It's also at the heart of what a lot of campus ministries and some Emmaus 4th Day groups (to name just two among many others!) have done brilliantly for decades.

Congregations alone aren't doing this work effectively, haven't done this work effectively, -- and generally speaking, for most people, it appears, just plain can't.

Perhaps the wake up call here is to tell us it's time to quit expecting congregations (and their pastors!) to do things they so clearly don't do and maybe can't do well!

Perhaps it's time instead to remember our own roots as missional Methodists.

As United Methodists, we are calling each other to invest in increasing the number of vital congregations. This is a fine thing to do. GBOD is here to help with that-- and we do it every day.  But also, perhaps it's time to start investing just as heavily in leaders who will generate forms of Christian community like Methodist Societies across the US, at least-- even as they already are and have been for decades in places like Zimbabwe! And yes, GBOD is here to help you with that, too-- whenever you are ready.

Shock and Horror? No. Panic moves to "kick-start" congregations into discipling? Not likely to do much but damage a lot of congregations. 

Sobriety is what these data point us to. Congregations are invited to look in the mirror, and realize what they are and are not, what they can do well, and what others can do better. Congregations are invited not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, but rather to regard other forms of Christian community that can do some tasks better than they can as their equal partners in fulfilling Christ's commission.

And maybe, just maybe, some congregational leaders, lay or clergy, are being invited to form or partner with missional discipling groups that do what early Methodist Societies (with their class meetings, bands, trial class meetings, select societies, field preaching and society meetings) did so well-- to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land. 

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


Todd said...

I probably won't win any points with my Bishop or anyone else for saying this, but doesn't this point to a disconnect in our current denominational thinking?

As far as I can tell, most of our "Vital Congregations" thinking is based on the assumption that local congregations are the venue in which disciples are formed. The Barna research calls that into serious question, especially for the younger generations.

In "Building a Discipling Culture" Mike Breen says "If you make disciples, you always get the church, but if you make a church, you rarely get disciples." He goes on to say "If you set out to build the is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide."

All of our metrics, all of our proposals for leadership training (at least those I'm familiar with, and I've made an effort to read as much as I can find) seem to be focused on the latter path - building the church, as in truth they have been most of my lifetime (I'm in my mid 40's, UMC since age 15). And in the process I fear we'll only continue to feed a culture of Christian consumerism that may yield attendance and membership numbers, but will not make disciples.

David W. Scott said...

I agree with Todd. I do think we need to expect that congregations will be a part of the discipleship process if we're serious about our mission as the UMC and believe that local congregations should be part of that mission. (For more on that, see my my recent blog post:

But Todd's right that the metrics proposed by CTA don't get at discipleship. It's entirely possible to increase membership numbers and increase giving without members necessarily becoming better disciples of Jesus. That's why I think we need a different sort of metric for the church, one that will ask directly about whether members have grown as disciples and churches are more effectively transforming the world because of that. I've elaborated such a suggestion here:

Alice said...

It should not be too surprising since the higher ups focused more on how many people were in pews versus the amount of people who professed of faith or were in small groups. The fact we have UM churches that do not have small groups should be huge red flags to any Bishop and cabinet.
Good leadership can only do so much. Leaders can't make people care. We have thousands of Rev.3:16 churches in our denomination. I'm just wondering how much leadership we will waste on babysitting them.
I've served these churches. I put together a Discipleship Notebook for my last congregation. I introduced them during worship. If an individual wanted to be a "disciple" and grow they would need to come get their notebook off the front pew or ask for one. The notebook was empty--divided into sections --outward disciplines, inward, corporate, and misc for articles or any other means of spritual formation they could benefit from.
I explained that their discipleship was their responsibilty and their choice, and it was my job to EQUIP them etc. This is why I would not just pass the notebooks out.
And it also indicated to me who really wanted to grow. Sad to say I never was able to get rid of the 20 notebooks I set on the pew. PITIFUL BUT TRUE. I got tired of being the only one being evaluated so I got to see first hand what I was working with as their leader. Another Rev. 3:16....darn.

journeyman37 said...


You express a common frustration when we ask congregations-- or people meeting as a congregation-- to move toward discipleship.

Two things come to mind as ways forward.

The one I recommend the most often is rather than challenging the whole group, become aware of "bright eyes"-- folks who respond in some potentially positive way-- when you talk about matters related to growing in holiness of heart and life, or being part of a covenant discipleship group, or even growing in Christ.

Then go to these persons, one on one, and ask them, if they wish, to share with you what their response was about. You might say, "When I was talking about how my accountability group was helping me grow, I thought I saw something click in you. Would you mind sharing what that was? I'd love to explore that more with you, if you like."

The principle here-- work with individuals who are ready, or who might indicate some readiness for a next step, rather than asking a group as a whole to decide on the spot, as it were.

A second thing comes to mind-- a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird." Maybe you remember it. Scout is out with her father, Atticus Finch, and they come upon several men dressed in white hoods, obviously out for a "ride" and more or less raring to go-- and they were threatening Atticus as well. Scout begins recognizing some of their voices, and calls them out by name, talking to each individually. Once addressed as individuals, they could no longer go through with whatever they were just about to do that night.

The "peer pressure" of that band of KKK members would have led them to do great harm to others. It was simply part of KKK culture. Break the "group think" and individuals can act with their own values and resist the evil the group would do.

The "peer pressure" of congregations meeting as congregations isn't evil, and I might not even call it "Laodicean." It's just not geared toward discipleship per se in most contexts. So addressing the congregation as a congregation with a call to discipleship may be met with very little response.

But addressing the people in the same congregation, when they're away from being in "congregation mode," can be a very effective means of helping them take the next steps toward holiness of heart and life you may have seen they long for individually.

A huge part of that next step is connecting them with a group whose culture is all about that journey of discipleship and increasing holiness. Few congregations can. Small discipling communities-- like the early Methodist class meetings, or Covenant Discipleship grups, or other "Discipling Communities" I describe a bit in this post and a good bit more two posts ahead, both can and do.

Peace in Christ,


Suzy Jacobson Cherry said...

This is interesting, and not at all surprising, to me. I am an older(ish) M.Div. student, and have gone through the ups and downs of discerning whether or not a I am really called to ordination (I think I am) and if it's as a deacon or elder, because of my belief that making disciples does not mean filling the seats on Sunday morning. Though I have finally discerned that I am called to be an elder, I see models of the kind of leader I want to be in the emerging church and in the ancient/future model of worship (at least, the way I understand it). This means smaller groups of people worshiping together, supporting one another, and reaching out in mission together. Obviously, if the Board of Ordained Ministry agrees with me that I am called and commissions me, I will go where my Bishop chooses to send me, and I will seek to serve and to inspire others to serve the best that I can. However, I have a dream of leading a small but vital and vibrant church where members seek more than a Sunday spiritual "pick me up."