The Congregational Divide

What makes some congregations thrive and some congregations falter?

I work with 96 congregations of different sizes and contexts that stretch across seven counties.  Every day I spend time thinking about the churches that seem to be dying and the churches that seem to be alive with possibility.  And the divide between them is obvious and not-so-obvious.

The obvious:

  • Congregations in growing neighborhoods have the capacity to swell in numbers, as opposed to rural and urban areas where the population is decreasing steadily, usually because of a lack of jobs.
  • Congregations with a large endowment have the ability to keep a full-time pastor, even if their regular weekly donations are stagnant. They can and do tap into their savings.
  • Congregations with larger memberships (and “larger” is relative) still appear to fill the pews on Sunday mornings, especially if their sanctuary seats between 100 – 200 people.

The not-so-obvious:

  1. Congregations who do make decisions based on “saving money” are going to die within the next ten years.  I’m looking at you Pastor Search Committee hoping to hire a retired pastor to avoid paying pension and health benefits.  
  2. Congregations who plan their ministries around “getting people to join” are going to die within the next ten years. You are not fooling anyone.  We know you started a preschool “to bring in the young families” instead of starting a preschool to serve the children in your neighborhood for their own sake.  We know that the only reason you are offering community dinners is “to attract the neighbors” rather than offering hospitality with no strings attached.
  3. Congregations who consider strategic plans without prayerful discernment are going to die within the next ten years.  So many times church programs happen because they are the pet projects of particular members when – maybe – those programs are no longer relevant or effective.

Thriving congregations make decisions this way:

  • They invest their money in the best possible leadership trusting that effective ministry funds itself when the community is impacted for good.  And this not only includes the paid leadership.  They also invest in leadership training for unpaid volunteers.
  • They offer ministry that’s informed by the needs of the community.  It’s about serving the neighbors, not bringing in new members for the sake of survival.
  • They pray together.  They seriously pray that God will guide them in their planning, that God will open their eyes to the needs around them, that God will empower them to take on audacious goals for the sake of the Kingdom.  They take the time to discern what God is calling them to be and do in this time and place.

Children born today will be 25 years old on August 14, 2044.  Will there be a church for them?  (Thank you HH.)

Thriving congregations are more fearless than not.  They especially do not fear failure.  Let’s try it and see what happens.  Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t but God will use it either way.

If we are too tired or too comfortable or too fearful, our congregations will never thrive.  And we might look back 25 years from now and wonder where we went wrong.  (Re-read #1-3 above.)

And if you need another reason to embrace a new way of being the Church: Thriving congregations are more fun.

Image of the Perseid Meteor Shower on August 12, 2019 over Macedonia where the apostle Paul encouraged believersSource.

2 responses to “The Congregational Divide

  1. And sometimes congregations thrive for no
    discernible reason even when external conditions don’t seem favorable. Sometimes a
    church is reborn, drawn to new life by
    the Spirit. You just can’t program that


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