Something quite amazing is happening in our day: a culture of religious practice is collapsing. In the Catholic tradition, that collapse has seen a diminution of the obligation that propelled many a Catholic to church on Sunday. In the Protestant world, denominational affiliation apparently does not have the irresistible pull it once did, insuring that generation would follow generation into a specific type of church. But to bemoan the mixture of institutional choas and individual confusion that has accompanied this collapse is to miss the point.

People are focusing less on church and more on God. People realize that window dressing is not enough. They want to see and experience what’s in the store, not simply be its lifeless mannequins. In place of that static window dressing that was displayed each week is the possibility of a loving presence not only for that Sunday hour, but throughout the week.

Paradoxically, while denominational affiliation might appear to be less and less relevant, it is actually still very important. A recent survey shows that a significant number of people still see themselves as the standard bearers of their various traditions. But there is a crucial difference today. Modern Christians’ enthusiasm, affiliation, and affection comes from the fact that they have found a church that has stirred their souls, and that church happens to be a certain kind. It was that church—a specific, identifiable island amidst the storm that is all our lives—that gave them both something to reach for and something to hang onto.

So, it is apparent that the local church is crucially important—far more important than broad institutional posturing—as the local church is still the locus for belief, the point of entry for the seeker, the school for learning a new way to live, and the launching pad into the world.

The Search Begins
In October of 1998, I began a search for excellent congregations after visiting a Catholic parish in New Jersey, where I found myself amazed with the vitality of the place, the obvious enjoyment people had in being part of the parish, and in the stories of transformation that I heard. If that wonderful, spirit-filled place in New Jersey existed, I was sure it was not the only example of excellent parish life. Funded by a Lilly Endowment grant, I was able to begin the Parish/Congregation Study, whose object was to find excellent Catholic parishes and Protestant congregations.

Together with research associates Marty Minchin and Melanie Bruce, I looked for congregations that had what the writer Flannery O’Connor called “a habit of being.” Congregations with a soul. We were looking for congregations that were making a difference in their communities, local churches that were beacons of hope and guidance and examples of what it really means to be a practicing Christian today. What we found was that, while so-called mainline churches have seen a decline both in their numbers and in denominational loyalty over the past two or three decades, the desire for a spiritual connection with God is perhaps stronger than it has ever been in this nation. And the local church is still the place where the majority of people find spiritual sustenance and support.

Traits of Excellent Churches
After more than two years of research, while I am not able to name the ideal or best Catholic parish or Protestant congregation, I have found that excellent churches share some common traits.

They share a vibrancy, an excitement about living a Christian life. For them, being a Christian is not a leisure pastime, but a high-adventure activity. These churches have accepted this challenge and it brings excitement to everything they do.

These churches are not bound by tradition. For them, tradition is a beginning, a springboard, not a wall that cannot be breached. These churches have a sense that they are part of a continnum, that what they are doing today may be considered “traditional” in the years ahead.

Nor are these churches bound by geography, denomination, or their own physical walls. They are willing to reach beyond their comfort zone, whether this means reaching beyond what might be considered their usual constituency, using technology to make themselves known, or taking their faith into city hall, across a back fence, or to the next desk in their office. Excellent churches basically have no walls, no property lines. They are in the marketplace, in civic meetings, in boardrooms and around water coolers. They realize that there are many people within just a short distance of their doors who will never know about them if they do not reach out into the world.

Excellent churches are constantly looking for better ways to reach and serve people. This entrepreneurial spirit is not about accumulating conversions, but about genuinely doing a better job so that people naturally want to come to this church and be a part of it. The style of these churches attracts people beyond their neighborhoods and from outside their denominations. People are drawn to them because they sense that the spirit of a living God is present in them.

These churches are not static. They regularly evaluate themselves, asking hard questions like “Who are we?” “What are we trying to do?” “Are we performing in an honorable and holy way?” Yet, they don’t try to be all things to all people. They have a vision and they work toward it. They continually try to discern their place in the community and the lives of their people, and they are willing to redirect their energies toward what they perceive as their mission as it changes. They are not entrenched in convention. When something is not working or a new need arises, they are ready to put aside old structures and reorganize.

And they don’t try to do everything themselves. Excellent churches willingly enter into partnerships that allow them to do their work better, and they see their work as not merely serving their constituency, but as transforming the world around them, so these churches are willing to go into the world and affect the civic and social structure.

Excellent churches are also very deliberate about taking their members to new levels. They seek out people to take on responsibilities. Formal training and ordination are not prerequisites for church leadership. These churches realize the abundance of talent within their congregations, and they readily ask “Who can best do this work?” When the answer is found, that person is given the opportunity, authority, and support to do it well.

Somehow, some way, these churches have broken through the sclerotic buildup of dead practices and policies that no longer work and have opened up free-flowing channels of grace. The pastors, staff, and lay people who created change in these churches are not magicians; they do not possess secrets inaccessible to the rest of us. That is why they are worth being known. They are examples of reproducible excellence, of approaches and programs that could be done in other places as well.

These churches are beacons to us all, signs that if we trust in God, God will be with us. A living, daily God. This is not window dressing.

This article was adapted from Excellent Protestant Congregations: The Guide to Best Places and Practices and used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. To order, call 1-800-227-2872.