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This frame can help us understand how what happens outside a congregation shapes what happens inside a congregation. Together, what happens within and beyond come together to create a whole “ecology” or ecosystem.

(A) My congregation.

Here’s “my congregation” placed in it’s own little corner of the world.

 

(B) The neighborhood.

What kind of neighborhood is the congregation located in? Is it residential, commercial, or something else?

 

(C) Who (if anyone), lives nearby.

Historically, congregations were often built nearby their founding members. Over time though, demographics shift and there can be significant differences between those who attend a congregation and those who live in its neighborhood. Consider age, ethnicity, class, etc.

 

(D) Other congregations.

What about that megachurch down the road? Congregations are voluntary associations and sometimes other options nearby can shape the life of a congregation.

(E) Urban, Rural or Suburb.

Increasingly Americans live in cities, but that hasn’t always been the case. The surrounding rural, suburban and city environments can shape a congregation in all kinds of ways.

 

(F) Demographics.

When learning about your congregation, it’s always important to take stock of the population in the area around you. Demographics shift and when congregations rely on only one demographic, these shifts can mean big changes for the congregation.

 

(G) Region.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, but geography plays its own role in shaping congregations. Often a matter of where various ethnic groups settled in the US, proximity to these historical strongholds can shape a congregation.

(H) Social issues.

Religious communities often have contributions to make when it comes to the issues of the day. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement impacted many congregations. Today, new movements such as gay rights, and pro-life movements have given congregations fuel to mobilize their people.

(I) National trends.

Organizations like Gallop, The Pew Forum, and Hartford’s Center for Religious Research have been monitoring national trends on religious participation. These big pictures shape the landscape that all congregations must journey through.

(J) National narratives

Religious communities are profoundly shaped by the political structure and national narratives of the countries they are located in. American congregations, for example, are shaped stories about the founding of the country and it's status as a so-called "Christian" nation.

(K) Networks & More

Most congregations are part of larger networks not bound by geography. These networks include denominations, associations and informal partnerships with like-minded communities. It might also include relationships with theological schools or other educational institutions.

Frame in Action

Flourishing Congregations: Not All Are As They Appear

Amidst the endless stream of research studies, news stories, and anecdotes that rightly report on religious decline across denominations and congregations, where are the signs of congregational life and vitality, and what can we learn from such settings? These are anchoring questions for our Canadian-based research team at the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University. When you consider the traits of a flourishing congregation, what would you include or exclude from your list, and why? In 2016 and 2017 our team of scholars with expertise in the social sciences, practical theology, and organizational as well as leadership studies set out to answer this question. We did so...
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Studying Congregations in a Pandemic

In the midst of this pandemic, congregations have often been in the news (not always for good reasons). Newspaper columnists are writing about how we need what religion has to offer and how we miss the little things, like singing together, as well as highlighting the creative ways religious communities are staying connected. Meanwhile leaders of local congregations are scrambling to learn new skills, and members are gathering in new ways. Bible studies and committee meetings are via Zoom. Caregivers are setting up old fashioned phone calls and cards for vulnerable and isolated members. Food pantries are staying open to serve the increased need. Much of what it means to be a congregation...
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A Good Time for a Walk

During these long days of physical isolation, long walks around my community of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, have been a welcome respite. Those walks have also inevitably stirred my historical curiosity about this town first settled by Europeans in the 17th century. I realized that I had a question: There was something missing from our religious ecology. Where is West Roxbury’s Congregational Church? Every New England town has one of those wonderful white meeting houses at its center. Even if many have been rebuilt or repurposed over the years, our New England landscape is marked by the fact that in pre-Revolutionary times a town HAD to have a church, and in fact you had to be a member...
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Embodying Welcome

In every religious community that has life there are people who embody and extend that life. At Boston’s historic Trinity Church, one of those people is Bob Yearwood. His story invites us to think about all the small things that make up the culture of a congregation. Profiled in the Boston Globe, Yearwood is introduced as the church’s “verger,” a position in the Episcopal Church that includes preparing for the liturgies. That obviously includes making sure that all the physical things are in place, but also that the community itself is ready. One of his fellow parishioners noticed, for example that he carries gold candy coins in his pocket to hand out to children when he portrays one of...
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From Sidewalks to Ports – Expanding Congregational Connections

Ninety percent of the consumer goods we use daily come to us through the global shipping industry, a sector invisible to most of us and rarely thought about by congregations. Growing attention focuses on the conditions under which goods are made, but what about the people who transport those goods to us? Every day, across the United States and around the world, container ships and cargo vessels carry food, fuel, and a broad range of consumer goods into ports. In the United States, the Coast Guard and Customs examine the vessel and its cargo. Who cares for the crew? That work falls to port chaplains active at the majority of large ports in the United States and the United Kingdom as well...
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Great Data for Curious Leaders

If you are a congregational leader or lay worker in a local church, you’ve likely looked around and noticed your community is changing. Perhaps you wonder if your congregation needs to change, too. Is there a site with the tools and resources that can help you find reliable answers to your questions? Indeed, there is. The Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA) has an amazing range of relevant data and easy-to-use tools that will help you imagine the right questions to ask and find trustworthy data that will allow you to answer your questions easily and accurately. You can even produce powerful visual aids to share. Here are three examples – available free from the ARDA. 1. The...
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Competition in the Neighborhood?

Why would a church ask a departing pastor to sign a non-compete agreement? In December 2018, World magazine, a touchstone periodical for a conservative swath of the evangelical world in the United States, published an exposé on leadership issues at Harvest Bible Chapel—a Chicago-area megachurch and the catalyst for a church planting network that counts some 150 independent congregations. Deep within the article, a pastor who departed from his network congregation reported that his resignation process included a pledge not to participate in a ministry “within a 50-mile radius of Chicago.” Those geographical restrictions were a clear indication that the Harvest leadership, though they may...
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Who is Your Neighbor? Who Decides?

Immigration has become one of the most difficult issues facing people throughout Europe and North America. And congregations are on the front lines in many ways. Whether offering services to immigrants and refugees once they arrive or protecting those facing deportation, being involved with these neighbors also brings congregations into conversation with a larger public and with legal authorities. Governmental agencies are a part of the community ecology that is invisible most of the time to most religious leaders – but they shouldn’t be. There are, of course, building inspections and financial regulations. And when congregations choose to become part of the social safety net, they...
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Working Together in Spite of Differences?

Understanding a congregation’s context is complicated these days – but never more important. The communities where congregations reside are a complex mix of changing demographics, shifting economies – and politics. Understanding ourselves and our neighbors is a critical first step toward finding new ways to talk to each other and work together. The challenges were especially apparent when ICE raided a concrete plant in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, detaining 32 workers who were in the U.S. without legal documentation.  As the New York Times reported, the fallout exposed divisions between residents and among the town’s congregations.  For some, the law is the law; while for others, a biblical...
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Related Tools

Using Photos & Videos

Another helpful way of understanding your congregation's ecology is to use photos and videos. This tool helps you see things from other's point of view.
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A Walking Tour

One easy way to learn about your congregation is to take a walking tour of the area surrounding it: take note of what’s familiar and what’s not.
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Who's Out There

Using the Census and other demographic data is a great way to get the big picture of your congregation's ecology. Pay attention to changes in this data over time.
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