by Tim Shapiro

In October 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that, based on new data, 19.5% of Americans register no religious affiliation. This is an almost five percent increase over the last five years. 

Congregations are struggling, in part, according to the Pew Forum Study because the religious life of individuals in the United States is changing. If fewer Americans report no faith affiliation, then fewer Americans are likely to be affiliated with congregations. Congregations are closing—congregations in New York City and in Mooresville, Indiana. Some estimate about 3500 annually across the country.

Interestingly, the same survey reports that 76% of Americans say that daily prayer is an important part of their lives, a percent that is unchanged over the last 25 years.

The tension between these two statistics, the decrease in religious affiliation and the steady practice of prayer, represent a peculiarly positive reality that the Indianapolis Center for Congregation observes in its work. The faith life of many Americans is more ambiguous than can be explained in a survey. Furthermore, the life of any particular congregation—that is, yourcongregation—is more rich, complex and religious than is captured in many contemporary studies of United States congregations.

The Indianapolis Center for Congregations’ experience with any particular Indiana congregation is almost always positive. Every day the Center observes congregations with vibrant worship, effective mission, and strong religious education. For every sign of congregational decline observed through national data, there exists an exception in Indiana. For example, though the Pew Forum reports that fewer young people attend worship, the Center has worked with an Indianapolis congregation of 300 adherents in which the average age of those in worship is nineteen. One of the rising, presenting issues expressed by congregations that contact the Center is the opportunity of starting satellite campuses for worship and mission. New congregations, communities of faith that will not just survive, but thrive, are starting every month in Indiana.

What explains such exceptions to the social science data? All who provide support services to congregations, pay heed. Our view of the world is formed by the questions we ask. If one asks social survey questions, one receives general population data. However, the Indianapolis Center for Congregations asks an entirely different set of questions. The Center’s method is asset based, and is focused on the singular, local congregation, not on a conglomerate of congregations. The Indianapolis Center focuses on strengths and on one congregation at a time; and by doing so helps particular congregations live beyond negative sociological predestination.

There are few, if any, direct analogues to orient an outsider to the work of the Indianapolis Center. Our overarching method is a developmental learning model. The Center’s model asserts that effective, sustained learning in congregations almost always involves a pivotal juxtaposition: blending an excellent outside resource with a congregation’s own ingenuity.

The Center’s work intersects with a congregation at its level of readiness. The Center avoids the common pitfalls of assisting another organization: providing what is not wanted or providing too much of what is needed.

A concise summary of the Center’s method consists of these nine stances that form our resource model:

  • The Center connects congregations with outside resources (any helper like a book, a consultant, a workshop, a professor, a website, and so forth).
  • The Center encourages congregations to take initiative.
  • The Center asks open-ended questions and listens congregations into new opportunities.
  • The Center does not function as the expert.
  • The Center encourages clergy and laity to learn together.
  • The Center encourages congregations to slow down and think and act strategically.
  • The Center keeps engaged with the same congregations over time.
  • The Center says “no” to some requests (that fall outside our mission) and “yes” to those requests that are a match with our mission.
  • The Center is not associated with any religious movement and practices theological hospitality.

Congregational capacity is developed through both rational and experiential means. Reason and revelation together help congregations learn new ways of addressing challenges and opportunities. Applied in concert, reason and revelation provide a path that bypasses data-driven doom.

The Center asserts that the local congregation is the primary place where people learn about God and the religious values that are essential for a full life. Congregations are invaluable when it comes to helping people figure out and live their religious claims and commitments. Well-functioning congregations add a tremendous amount to the well-being of a local community; whether it is the Carmel, Indiana congregation sending a work team to southern Indiana following a flood, or an Indianapolis urban congregation partnering with the public school around the corner.

The Indianapolis Center helps the local congregation stay healthy by providing tools that support new capacities for new challenges. It is more than preventative care the Center offers. It is health that leads to abundance and vibrancy. It is a learning method that works.


Congregations Magazine, 2013-01-09
2012 Issue 4