In this era of rapid cultural change and declining church attendance, many Protestant congregations have embarked upon efforts to recreate or redevelop themselves. They want to attract new members, improve their financial status, and increase the participation and enthusiasm of their current members—in essence, to become healthier and more robust. They call in consultants to help them write new mission statements and establish new visions for themselves. But what will be required of them if they are to change in ways that truly will bring them new life? What are the characteristics of what many have begun to call “congregational vitality”?

For two former Alban Institute consultants, key factors in a church’s health are the spiritual growth of its members, its participation in outreach activities, and its cultivation of members’ ability and willingness to express their faith and their unique God-given gifts in the world.

“I look at whether the congregation is doing a good job of using its resources, primarily its people and time,” says consultant Terry Foland, a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “I want to know whether the congregation is using those resources well. Is it serving people beyond its own membership, doing outreach into the community, or is it concerned only with maintaining itself and addressing its own needs?” To be truly healthy, he says, a congregation needs to serve both its own members and the community outside its walls.

In many churches, however, the value of outreach is not readily perceived. “In a consumer-oriented culture such as ours, a good many people think that what the church needs to provide is something for them,” Foland says. “They don’t think of the church being called to service beyond itself, so that’s one of the struggles that congregations often face when they begin the process of reinventing themselves.”

Ed White, a Presbyterian pastor, has a similar view. “One key mark of congregational vitality is the level of discipleship of members,” he says. “It seems to me that we are in the business of trying to transform lives and to help people discover their gifts—and to develop and exercise those gifts for the glory of God, not only in the church institution but also in the workplace, the home, and the community.”

Assessment is Key

As a first step in the redevelopment process, both consultants have churches assess their current vitality. Foland has determined that at least 12 areas of a congregation’s health must be considered, and within each of those categories he asks church boards to consider several questions. He is interested, for example, in how the congregation’s norms and values evolved, and how much its past determines its present and future life.

Other questions inquire into the congregation’s identity as a community. What is its culture or ethos? What sort of climate does it provide for newcomers and longer-term members? Does it value differences, deal effectively with conflict, and provide ways for all members equally to get their needs met? How open is the church to hear God’s call as a faith community? Is it successful at helping members grow in their spiritual life? Is it responsive to the needs of the surrounding community? Foland also asks about the congregation’s shared vision—whether it has one at all and, if so, how members arrived at it and refined it. How broad, he asks church leaders, is the congregation’s worldview?

The answers to these and other questions, he says, provide a way for a congregation to increase its awareness of areas needing attention. (For more details, see “The Marks of a Healthy Church.”)

Surveying Expectations

White uses a similar device to begin a congregational process of self-assessment. He has developed a list of 15 possible expectations a church might have of its members (see the box on page 8) and asks church board members to identify those items that are now employed and those that are desirable but not in operation. “The items that they invariably check as operative in their membership are supporting the church financially, coming to church on Sunday morning, showing up on Christmas and Easter, serving on committees, and conforming to the culture of the church,” says White. “And anybody who does those things consistently is considered a member in good standing,” he adds. “What that shows is that most of our churches are low-expectation churches; they are in the membership business. They are in the business of recruiting members who will attend and support the institution. . . . [not] the disciple-making business.”

The items typically identified as being desirable but not in current use include members deliberately pursuing spiritual growth through study and prayer; discovering in what they do all week a vocation instead of just a job; developing and exercising their spiritual gifts, both in the church and in the world; sharing their faith; inviting others to church; and being involved in pastoral care.

“What I find from this exercise is that most of the leadership in our churches would like to reclaim the vision of what it means to be in the disciple-making business,” says White. “I think the health of a congregation is reflected in what is happening to its members, and a fundamental difference between a membership church and a disciple-making church is its expectation of change in its members. You could be a member of a membership church for 50 or 60 years and never change. If a newcomer asked, ‘What does it mean to be a member of this church?’ I would like the answer to be ‘That you are going to grow and change—you are going to grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually; and you are going to grow theologically as a follower of Jesus, because we believe that as we work and learn and worship together, God changes us.’ And I would say that a healthy congregation is [a place] where that is happening.”

Research Provides Comparison Data

While their work with congregations has taught both Foland and White much about what is required for a church to be vital, recent research supports many of their assumptions, and both consultants now use this research to assist congregations in evaluating their own health and expanding their vision of what it means to be a vital congregation.

For White, the work of German Lutheran theologian Christian A. Schwarz has proved most useful. In his 1996 book, Natural Church Development, Schwarz describes the findings from his study of 1,000 Protestant congregations in 32 countries. When all the data were tabulated, he concluded that eight characteristics were consistently present in healthy, growing congregations and missing in unhealthy, declining congregations. These included empowering leadership; development, discernment, and exercise of members’ God-given gifts; passionate spirituality; effective structures; inspiring worship; healthy small groups; loving relationships; and evangelism oriented to the individual’s needs (see the box on page 9 for details).

White asks congregations to rate themselves on these characteristics. “What I have found is that the lowest scores for mainline Protestant churches are almost always in passionate spirituality and need-oriented evangelism,” he says. “In these churches the category of passionate spirituality isn’t even on the radar screen. . . . [It’s a revelation for congregations] to suddenly discover that they have a major problem that they weren’t even conscious of.”

Being Vs. Doing

Most churches embarking on a redevelopment process, White says, talk about what they should do—new programs they should offer, new fundraising projects t
hey should try, or new building plans, for instance—but he believes their focus is off the mark. “The eight qualities Schwarz has identified have more to do with a quality of being. It’s that being-level issue that I think is at the heart of any kind of congregational transformation,” he says. “We tend to generate more busy-ness for ourselves without dealing with the essential quality or character of the congregation.”

White has also found that using Schwarz’s eight characteristics helps churches focus on these qualitative issues. He suggests initiatives for congregations. “Schwarz’s wisdom,” he says, “is that you go to work on your lowest-scoring characteristic because you are going to get the greatest improvement not only in that one quality but in the overall health of the church.”

Foland also recently began using research in his work with congregations seeking to redevelop themselves. For this purpose, he finds the recently published Field Guide to U.S. Congregations by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce (see an article by these authors on page 10) useful to congregations as a comparison base. Authors of the guide describe the results of their 2001 study of 2,000 U.S. congregations, in which they surveyed participants on many of the questions Foland puts to congregations. Like White, Foland also asks congregations to score themselves in each of the 12 primary categories he has identified as being important to a congregation’s health. The scores themselves are less important than the discussion generated, he says. “That’s all a survey like this is valuable for. It’s how you open the door to good conversation among people.”

Involving the Congregation

Of particular importance, Foland contends, is involving the entire congregation in redevelopment. He begins by informing the congregation at a worship service about the church’s goal of redefining and revitalizing itself and the process that will be used to effect change. He then meets with worshipers informally to get a sense of the key questions they believe need to be addressed. Later he conducts individual and group interviews, as well as small-group discussions. “Then, when I work with the board or long-range planning committee, we have not only their thinking but also the thinking of the people who participated in these discussions,” Foland says. In all, he estimates that from 40 to 50 percent of a church’s membership is typically involved in the redevelopment process, and the entire membership is kept informed at worship services.

Cultural Shifts, Changing Challenges

The issues congregations usually raise for discussion, Foland says, relate to whether to offer more than one service or style of worship and how the church should organize itself. “Most congregations,” he explains, “have a structure that came out of post-World War II, when the church was growing rapidly, and it is mostly structured on a business model—a board and functional departments.” In many cases, committees and subcommittees that are no longer needed are still listed on the organizational chart. “In today’s culture,” Foland explains, “a lot of people don’t want to commit themselves to a two- or three-year term on a committee that meets once a month whether it has any business or not, but they are willing to commit three to six months to a task or issue they feel is important.” He continues, “The struggle for churches is how to throw off the traditional organizational structure and to determine what structure is needed to carry out their mission as they understand it.”

Complicating churches’ efforts to reinvent themselves, White adds, is our rapidly changing environment. He identifies the cultural emphasis on hyperindividualism and consumerism and politicians’ idolatry of the nation-state as particularly troublesome. “How can you be a Christian in a culture whose values for the most part are antithetical to everything Jesus taught?” he asks churches.

Foland agrees. “There is a continuing [interface] of the congregation with the cultural trends—what’s acceptable and how we live with it,” he observes, citing the increasing impact of technology on our lives, shifting tastes in music and entertainment, changing notions of marriage and family, and the increasing trend of cohabitation. Even the routine use of credit in our financial dealings has profound implications for how the church approaches the issue of stewardship. Of particular importance in reaching the younger generation, he says, is attention to shifting tastes in music and music’s ability to communicate.

White points to another factor that inhibits change in mainline Protestant churches—the fact that many continue to be run by those who, like himself, attended seminary 40 to 50 years ago and were taught to believe in a single, fixed truth and to worship God with their minds. “We were not trained to be spiritual leaders; we were trained to be resident theologians so that we could tell a congregation how the Christian faith was a wonderful theological system in which everything made sense. But people are not interested in that anymore. They want to know ‘Does it work?’” Understanding these differences is key if churches are going to change, White says. “The difference between the generations today is a whole different way of viewing the world and understanding reality, and this is one of the primary challenges for us if we are to reach the younger generation—those born after the baby boom ended in 1964.”