What makes a congregation vital? 

The very notion of vitality is fluid. It ebbs and flows through communities; projects, programs, and approaches to ministry that work in one congregation can fail miserably in another just a couple miles away. Even within communities, it can come and go. There is something inherently mystical about what makes a congregation vital. 

We at Congregations know of no better way to explore congregational liveliness than to visit communities that are widely seen as vital places of worship. And so, with this issue we are launching the first in a series examining some of America’s vital congregations. Written by members of Alban’s staff—anonymously so as to keep the focus on the congregation—we will visit a diverse set of congregations around the country to see what we can learn. 

We have not taken a scientific approach to selecting the communities we write about, beyond favoring those you may not know a lot about already. Rather, we select communities we have found ourselves drawn to. Our series begins in Atlanta, Georgia, at Central Presbyterian Church, whose colorful sanctuary is depicted on the cover of this issue. The origami birds, each folded by a member of the church, includes the name of someone connected with the congregation that the folder has promised to pray for through the coming year. They call the project “Wing and a Prayer.” 

This issue—a double issue, twice as long as usual, which helps us catch up with our schedule of publication while bringing you a wealth of content—includes a number of stories about congregations connecting with people and helping people connect. From G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s story on how some congregations are taking on child poverty in their communities by serving as a kind of extended family to Brent Coffin’s report on a weekly gathering to practice Christian havruta, this issue tells of ways that congregations are making connections possible. 

Connecting with people through popular culture (our review of Lady Gaga’s new CD is a first for us in many ways) and through social media (using the unlikely frame of Through the Looking Glass) illustrate the new ways congregations are finding to meet people where they live. Graham Standish points out that he learned how to lead a congregation on a college lacrosse team. Andrew Daugherty shows us how success isn’t necessarily found in statistics. Beverly and George Thompson explore the three R’s of change—resist, react, and respond—and help congregations move forward in healthy ways. And Mark Pinsky’s story of faith and disability at one congregation—excerpted from our luminous forthcoming book, Amazing Gifts—tells how a church was transformed by the arrival of one family.  

We hope you will be inspired by these stories and encouraged perhaps to see or do something a little differently in the future. As always, I welcome your responses, story ideas, and suggestions for other vital congregations to visit. You can reach me at rbass@alban.org. 


Richard Bass