- Theological Education
Studying a congregation's narrative, experts say, helps shape a church's future.
Adapting to changing demographics is key to church vitality, but experts say it’s not an easy process.
The Rev. Jeff Woods, associate general secretary for Regional Ministries at American Baptist Churches, said congregations need to understand the narratives they’re living now, in order to determine how they want to live in the future.
Pew Research reported in 2013 that 29 percent of adults seldom or never attend church, up 4 percent from 2003. That decline will continue, Woods said, unless a congregation intentionally makes a shift.
“I think they’re really prone to continue to live out that same pattern unless they make conscious efforts,” he said.
And survival, he noted, can’t be the motivation. It should instead be a byproduct stemming from mission growth, which occurs when a congregation asks itself the right questions.
“One of the questions I continually ask is ‘What’s God up to outside the congregation; what’s God up to in your neighborhood?,” Woods said.
Churches need to understand the context of the communities they serve, he said, and churches in decline have to re-learn this.
For example, he said one church he worked with wanted to increase its outreach to the Hispanic community. But after studying the cultural context of the area, realized they needed to be reaching out to the Burmese community instead.
Rev. James Latimer, a United Church of Christ pastor in Connecticut and a doctoral student at Hartford Seminary agreed. He coaches churches through the changing and growing process and said congregations that are thriving understand the local context in which they live.
He said congregations need to ask those not a part of the church, how the church is relevant to them.
“Who is God calling us to serve, and why? God is not calling you to serve the youth if there aren’t any youth around,” he said. “People are longing for connection at a deep level. Churches have it in their DNA to offer that.”
Figuring out how to offer the community that connection, he said, means getting outside of the church walls and investigating.
“Being open to change is a good first step,” Woods said. “Change doesn’t always resemble what you think it is….The contact God has with people is often disruptive, it almost always is.”
Both Woods and Latimer said this type of change takes a lot of work, and a congregation has to be ready for it.
Woods said congregations willing to shift their behavior, thinking and culture — the ones willing to risk — are the ones most likely to find “new life.”
A recent Faith Communities Today study echoed that that willingness to change and worship innovation are key to successful changes in church.
Woods said most churches have made identity changes throughout its lifespan, but a deliberate cultural change may be faster and more dramatic.
Latimer said a good first step is finding out members of a congregation care deeply about.
“All kinds of good things spin off when they focus on what they’re good at and what they’re passionate about,” he said, noting that listening to the individuals within the congregation is key.
He said churches interested in examining their stories and exploring what’s next for them can hire a coach through organizations like Coaching 4 Clergy. Online tools are also available, such as the Hartford Institute for Religion Research resource page for researching congregations and demographics, The Association of Religion Data Archive’s Congregational Resource Guide and U.S. Congregational Life Survey’s Resources for Congregations.