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Two stories back in 2014 had me thinking about that old children’s finger play – “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  Congregations certainly are “the people.”  But most are also the building and all the “stuff” they accumulate.

Lots of theologians and church critics lament the emphasis on material things, but we human beings express who we are by making things.  And we express who we collectively are by making and building and saving things together.

On Tuesday, an historic African American church in Atlanta was bulldozed to make way for a new football stadium (surely there’s at least one good sermon in that metaphor!).  Standing in southwest Atlanta since 1879, Friendship Baptist was full of history – playing a role in the establishment of Morehouse and Spellman Colleges, among other things.  It was also full of individual stories of births and deaths and baptisms and marriages. (more…)

There are a lot of congregational studies going on these days! The Lilly Endowment (sometimes known as “The Church’s One Foundation”) has been making a raft of grants for the study of thriving congregations. You might want to explore the descriptions of the work that is happening near you.

Another project that caught our eye is headquartered at Princeton Theological Seminary and led by Gordon Mikoski. Researcher Erin Rafferty is leading the team of researchers who are exploring how “ecclesial imagination” helps congregations adapt and reinvent themselves, and the group has been exceptionally creative in shifting to doing their work on-line. They had intended to use fairly typical ethnographic methods but have adapted to do their “deep hanging out” as they walk alongside the on-line gatherings of the congregations they are studying. A recent interview with Rafferty, along with several other useful resources is at Duke University Divinity School’s Faith&Leadership website.

Across the pond, Prof. Pete Ward continues to lead the Ecclesiology & Ethnography Network, and he has been interviewed for Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed’s “Three Minute Ministry Mentor” podcasts on why culture matters and why music matters in congregations. Links are here. While you are there, check out the other resources the Network offers.

Meanwhile, at Hartford Seminary, the 2020 Faith Communities Today survey aims to gather data on 20,000 congregations! Watch for updates as they become available.

Nancy Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion, Emerita, at Boston University and is Director for this website.

A lot of you are thinking about the buildings you aren’t worshipping in right now. This pandemic has prompted both nostalgia and hard reassessment. What do we miss? What could we still do? What use is the building anyway? One of the most vivid and poignant accounts I’ve read comes from Angela Tarango, and it’s a reflection on “The Gym” at La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. She conjures the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of all the events that used to happen there. “The gym is where food is shared. Where celebrations are recorded. Where the dead are mourned.” She says, “Now the gym sits empty. More so than the empty sanctuary, the empty gym haunts me.” So what empty space haunts you?

For all the emptiness and chaos, this is also proving to be a time of creative reassessment. Many religious leaders are discovering the benefits of sharing insights with each other, and a number of organizations and programs are helping to make that possible. At the Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) at USC, the “Reimagining Church Initiative” is gathering leaders to think together about how congregations can thrive amidst the challenges that were here long before the pandemic. Even if you aren’t part of a similar organized program, what new wisdom might you find in your own community (and beyond)?

Sometimes the reimagining that needs to happen involves closing the doors on one community of faith and looking for whatever new life may emerge. Closing a congregation is never easy, and it can take a toll on the leader who has to steer that course. Gail Cafferata came to Boston University several years ago to spend time exploring the experiences of pastors – like herself – who found themselves in that position. Her book, The Last Pastor, tells those stories in all their pain, but also all their wisdom. You can read an interview with her in Faith and Leadership. As she says, “Closing a church does not mean failure.” Are there things your congregation needs to let go?

Finally, a reminder that not all congregating takes place in church or on zoom. There are significant “congregations” happening in the streets. Hebah Farrag (also at USC’s CRCC) writes about the many ways “The Fight for Black Lives is a Spiritual Movement.” She describes the sacred spaces that have been created as places of remembrance and mourning and the rituals that often mark the protest events as more than just protests. Drawing on a deep well of spiritual tradition, people are marking this moment and drawing spiritual strength in community. Where is the spiritual energy in your community?

About the Author: Nancy Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion, Emerita, at Boston University and is Director for this website.

How should congregations aiming to initiate or expand their social service programming go about doing so? We recently published The Arc of Faith-Based Initiatives (2018, Springer) and have both examined congregational social services for about two decades. Our research suggests four critical considerations.

  • What’s your programming focus and will it fill a void? The field of faith-based programming is broad and diverse. The Arc of Faith-Based Initatives examines parenting, transitional homelessness, and addiction recovery programs implemented by various types of faith-based organizations and comparable secular agencies. Congregations provide a remarkably wide array of services, including family support, food assistance, rental and utility bill payment, adopt-a-family initiatives, and others. The most effective congregational service programming typically comes on the heels of an assessment of community needs and existing services. There is no substitute for a careful survey of the local landscape of social services and the community itself, with an eye toward identifying a pronounced unmet need identified at least in part by the people to be served.    

  • Does the proposed program fit with your congregation’s mission and priorities? Our research has indicated that effective social service programs align well with the mission and priorities of the organization that provides them. With due credit to Rick Warren, social service programs should be ”purpose-driven.” One parenting program we identified required over two dozen hours of training prior to a mentoring parent being assigned to a menteed family. This agency prioritized the quality of services over the quantity of clients served using only the most highly committed mentors with its rigorous training. Large faith-based organizations that secured sizable government contracts needed to pay attention to numbers of clients served because that benchmark was one of the ways their services were evaluated. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The key takeaway is that programmatic content (services provided) should align with your congregation’s priorities (core values).
  • Should we partner or fly solo? In our research, we found all make and manner of approaches to service delivery. Some congregations and faith-based organizations prefer to operate as a stand-alone service provider. Others collaborate with another faith-based or secular service provider. A lot depends on the human and other resources you have. Some develop referral networks across organizational lines so they can serve a particular set of clients (e.g., those in recovery from addiction) while referring other types of clients to their partners (e.g., those who need treatment services for their active addiction). The phrase ”jack of all trades, master of none” is a good caution against trying to do too much too quickly. Congregations that recognize their specific service niche and excel at delivering those services are often effective and develop a reputation for specialized success. Collaborative partnerships and referral networks are not always the best path forward, but they may help a congregation stay focused on what it does best. And partners often have a great deal to learn from one another.
  • What are holistic services, anyway? Must they include religion? We gained some interesting insights into holistic services from our research, with surprising variety across congregations and even secular organizations. In our view, holistic services consider all the needs people have, including spiritual needs if those exist. Our perspective affirms that some but not all people want religious content in social service programs. Some congregations feel that their service program must have a religious component. Other congregations believe they should not impose religion on those served, especially if program participants already affiliate with another faith or if their preference is for no religious content. The suggestion here is that a congregation offer what they think is right, but be honest and upfront about doing so. Let people know what to expect so they can make an informed choice.

We conclude by offering two observations from historical research on faith-based initiatives, much of which we have read and some of which we have written. First, while the media attention given to faith-based initiatives reached its apex during the George W. Bush administration, social services provided by religious organizations preceded the founding of our nation. Yes, there were ”faith-based initiatives” even during colonial times, and congregations figured quite prominently in these efforts (see chapter 2 in Charitable Choices). To this day, religious organizations remain viable and important service providers to vulnerable populations.

Second, the role of white privilege in the American history of faith-based benevolence is impossible to deny. Faith-based benevolence has often been provided along racial lines that preserved white privilege. Historically, many white Christian institutions protected and justified racial inequality by supporting slavery and legitimizing violence against non-European peoples. Nevertheless, there have also been faith organizations that have worked toward social justice and equity for all and have organized their social services accordingly. As the U.S. continues to grapple with its legacy of racism, faith-based organizations can be an important force for positive and lasting change.

John P. Bartkowski is Professor of Sociology at University of Texas, San Antonio

Susan E. Grettenberger is Social Work Program Director/Professor, Central Michigan University

Faith-Based Programming: Four Tips for CongregationsFaith-Based Programming: Four Tips for CongregationsFaith-Based Programming: Four Tips for CongregationsThey are authors of The Arc of Faith-Based Initiatives

Denominations matter more than you may think. Not all congregations are affiliated with a denomination or other national or international religious body, but most are. Even when they downplay that affiliation, it can be a significant part of how they do things

When students and others observe a new congregation or parish it is helpful to know something about that larger connection. What are the beliefs and rules? Is this congregation typical?

The Association of Religion Data Archives, commonly called “the ARDA,” can help. The website now features landing pages for 25 of America’s largest denominations.  The goal of these pages is to make information more readily accessible for researchers, students, journalists, and others.  If your primary interest is a particular denomination, now you can one-stop-shop, without searching the rest of the site.  And as always, everything is free of charge and there is no log-in required. 

Each page has an easy-to-use interface with information about membership, including change over time, and basic information about the number of congregations and clergy.  The membership link also shows a US map of membership so you can see where the congregation you are observing fits in. 

A different link provides demographic data as well as information about beliefs and practices drawn from the best-available data sources. Links to official denominational websites are a quick way to find guidelines for how churches are supposed to operate and accounts of the larger group’s shared history and culture.  There are always links to those data sources so information can be traced and double-checked.  

 If denominational surveys have already been conducted and are on the ARDA website, there are links to all of those surveys as well. 

Finally, there are links to any other resources about the denomination on the ARDA site, including videos or congregational visit guides. So whatever you are curious about, there is likely to be a good resource there.  

Art Farnsley is Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.  He is research director for the Religion and Urban Culture 2.0 project and outreach coordinator for the ARDA. Learn more about him at http://www.artfarnsley.com.

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 with interviews and focus groups with over 100 Catholic, mainline, and conservative Protestant church and denominational leaders in five Canadian regions. The image below captures our summation of those research findings, which we expand on in this article.

Three reflections for your consideration. First, different groups measure congregational flourishing in diverse ways. A group’s theological, historical, demographic, and ecological context informs what they think is worth counting. We are leery of presumptions that flourishing looks the same everywhere, or “do these five things and your church will flourish or grow.” For example, diversity as a marker of flourishing means something different to some Catholics, who may talk about ethnic or economic diversity among those in leadership or in the pews, versus a mainline Protestant, who might focus on gender or sexual orientation. Evangelism or discipleship might be supremely important to conservative Protestants, or innovation might stand out for recently planted congregations. Flourishing means understanding your own context and what matters most to your congregation.

Second, if your congregation is growing, does that mean it is flourishing, and if your church is not growing, does this mean you are not flourishing? Two distinct views emerged in our research. Some, notably from urban and growing contexts themselves, maintain that numerical growth in attendance, financial giving, membership, and so forth are important markers of flourishing. Others, usually from rural or declining settings, are less convinced. In places where demographics are not favorable to congregational growth – ageing populations, people leaving for jobs, and few people moving in – how is a congregation to think about flourishing? Transformed lives, having a positive impact in the neighborhood, and hospitable community for those in attendance are some of the responses to rise to the surface in our research. Certainly, congregations need numbers in order to remain viable, however flourishing may be about more than numbers.

Third, regardless of church size or growth/decline trajectory, most congregations flourish in some ways, and few congregations flourish in every way. Look at the image above again. When you consider your congregation, are there some areas where you see life, even if your church is not growing numerically? Do people feel welcome at your church? Are you willing to try new things, breaking from how things have always been done? Would you neighborhood notice if your church closed? On the other end of the continuum, no church is perfect. Even the largest and fastest growing congregations and their leaders face challenges.  

Bethania, NC. Moravian Love Feast at Easter. ©Will & Deni McIntyre

Our team is currently analyzing survey data from over 9,000 congregants and we are about to conduct nearly a dozen case studies. Our hope is to tap into underlying processes and mechanisms that lay beneath different elements of congregational flourishing. We anticipate this research will help us to answer a common question raised by many church leaders: “how do we get from here to there?” Stay tuned and hopefully we can provide an empirically informed response to that question!

Joel Thiessen is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author most recently of None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada.