Since Alban’s publication of The Practicing Congregation in 2004, when I first wrote about my research on vital mainline churches, hundreds of clergy groups and church leadership gatherings have invited me to share with them insights on what makes for a good congregation. At every gathering, I include the project’s key finding: “Congregations that intentionally engage Christian practices are congregations that experience new vitality.”
The sentence combines three components: intentionality, practice, and vitality. Further defining them, I point out that intentionality involves choice and taking responsibility for individual and communal spirituality; that practice is not a program, rather it is a meaningful way of life; and that vitality cannot be measured in terms of numbers as it means spiritual health and maturity. A vital congregation is one where all people—including the pastor—are growing members of an organic community of spiritual practice.
Inevitably, someone asks: “How does this relate to a Willow Creek strategy for church growth?” Most every pastor knows about Willow Creek and its wildly successful seeker-oriented, market-driven church growth program—and many pastors have labored to re-create such programs in their own churches or denominations.
Until recently, my answer has been, “Not very well. They focus on numbers, on getting people into church, and on ‘one-size fits all’ programs for the spiritual life. That isn’t bad for them; it is their path. And it is different from what my team found in small and medium-sized mainline churches. We found the programs don’t make Christians. Practices do.”
Now, however, I can answer in the words of Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek, as reported on the Leadership Journal blog. After an extensive study of their congregation (and several similar churches), Willow Creek’s leaders concluded that participation in programs did not inculcate Christian discipleship and that they had spent “millions of dollars” on programs thinking that they would help people grow—only to find that there was no real increase in parishioners’ love for God or their neighbor.
“We made a mistake,” says Hybels. “What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
Notice what Hybels says is missing: intentionality, practice, and vitality. Or, as the Leadership blog put it, “Spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships. These basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.”
To point this out is not “I told you so.” Rather, this is a profound development in North American congregational life. When one of the nation’s leading programmatic churches says that programs do not work and that their vision of Christian maturity was “wrong,” we best all sit up and take notice.
For almost a decade, the Alban Institute has been gently switching its emphasis from program-oriented and technical fixes for congregations to re-basing vital congregational life on spiritual practices, including prayer, theological reflection, generosity, storytelling, discernment, shaping community, hospitality, and leadership. Drawing insights from mainline churches, progressive evangelical communities, and Jewish synagogues (most often off-the-map and modest congregations), Alban authors have offered diverse wisdom from creative spiritual communities that have grappled successfully with the very issues that Willow Creek is now seeking to address. In a kind of spiritual irony, this modest wisdom may be the very thing that mega-churches like Willow Creek need in order to experience a deeper way of life—the maturity in faith that they admit is eluding thousands of their members.
In all of this, we may well feel the Spirit’s tug toward a different kind of congregational cooperation. What if we begin to see other faith communities as pilgrims on a journey to God instead of as competitors in a religion marketplace? Can we share with and serve each other as we walk a new—yet very old—road of shaping communal faith as a way of wisdom?
I do not read Bill Hybels’s confession as a moment to shout that the emperor has no clothes. Instead, I read it as an invitation to open our collective imaginations—to rethink congregations, form new relationships, and encourage one another on a journey of transformation. We all, even Willow Creek, need friends along the way.
Diana Butler Bass is an independent scholar and author. The results of her study on vital mainline churches may be found in three books, two from Alban, The Practicing Congregation andFrom Nomads to Pilgrims, and one from Harper,Christianity for the Rest of Us, just released in paperback.
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The Once and Future Church Collection by Loren B. Mead
Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in the Congregation by John Ackerman
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish
Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel
What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church by Anthony B. Robinson