What are the larger trends that will shape the future of congregational life? Simply to place this question on the table can be an important act of leadership. Daily life as a congregational leader often places such a premium on the ability to respond to immediate human and institutional needs that responding to whatever need is most pressing becomes a congregational lifestyle. For congregations caught in a style of immediate responsiveness it usually seems as if the only way out is to work even harder to meet all the immediate needs so that later there will be space for longer term thinking. Does this ever work? Sometimes, perhaps, but not often.

  The Leadership of Balcony Work

In order for the question of the future to find a place on the table, someone must put it there. This needs to be done artfully, with an understanding of what else is on the table, yet also insistently. Ronald Heiffitz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, a book that has been helpful to many congregational leaders, calls this “getting up on the balcony.” For Heiffitz, the ability to take a group to the balcony—where they can look at their shared work from a broader perspective—becomes the key quality distinguishing leadership from management.

As director of research for the Alban Institute, I often feel privileged when congregations or organizations that work with congregations invite me to assist them in getting to the balcony. I am powerfully aware of what an act of leadership it is to raise the question of the broader view within a congregation. Yet, when leaders ask about trends, I find myself expressing caveats. This is partly because researchers have a habit of caution. There is a reason why futurists are more popular as speakers than researchers. Researchers are the ones who feel compelled to place at the end of the mutual fund advertisement the rather deflating footnote: “Past returns are no indication of future performance.” Yet there is more to it than this: caveats are necessary because it is in the details rather than in the broad sweep that an understanding of trends becomes useful to leaders.

  The Danger of Following Trends

Leaders often understand intuitively that discussing broad trends is more a recreation to be engaged in at a distance from the congregation than something usefully brought into congregational life. Discussion of trends is especially ambiguous when it fuels justification or judgment, especially justification of one’s own actions or judgments about those of others. Congregational leaders, especially those who take the time to read or go to conferences, have learned caution. The lecture that begins with broad invocations concerning postmodernism, the millennial generation, or increasing racial and ethnic diversity is likely to end in an easy equation of what is, what will be, and what ought to be. This is far too easy to be helpful amidst the practical realities of congregational life.

The hardest part about leadership is not so much to get to the balcony as to get back down—or to bring what is seen on the balcony into useful relationship with the immediate realities of church or synagogue life. Achieving this requires that the subject of trends be approached from a different angle. Excellence in leadership frequently requires seeing through to a second level—seeing and grasping the opportunities presented by the anomalies or variations within the trends. Stated in statistical terms, the greatest strategic opportunities come not from locating the center of the bell curve but from understanding the significance of the outliers, the exceptions.

  Understanding and Acting on Trends

The practical art of understanding trends and acting on them in congregational life is something like canoeing a river. The broad trend that shapes everything about canoeing a river is that water tends to flow downhill. Yet excellence in canoeing requires moving beyond the recognition of this obvious trend. It requires recognizing and using with agility and daring the fact that, at any given moment, most water in any river, especially a turbulent river, is not flowing downstream. Books on canoeing therefore spend very little time commenting on the broad truth that water flows downhill. On the other hand, such books spend a great deal of time explaining how to use the exceptions: safe access points, eddies, eddy lines, haystacks, standing waves, undercurrents, and back-currents.

Within the framework of this metaphor, two observations are crucial:

  1. Knowing which way the water is going should not necessarily determine your destination. How much conviction about your destination do you really have if you are relying upon the direction of the current to help you decide which way you want to go? And there is a word of hope for those who decide that their choice of destination requires them to travel upstream: if you make good use of eddies, you can often find ways to go upriver.


  2. Using exceptions to deny or minimize the significance of the larger trend can be fatal. Anomalies have their significance within trends. While a reasoned or principled decision to go upriver can be entirely legitimate (and more possible than it might initially appear), thoughtlessly “broaching”—getting broadside to the current—is very, very dangerous. It is the most frequent reason for capsizing.

God’s beef with the prophet Jonah did not lie with Jonah’s general trend analysis. God rather agreed with Jonah that Nineveh was trending toward wickedness. God’s beef with Jonah was that his understanding of the trend led him to go with what seemed liked the obvious conclusion regarding what he ought do—find a good ship out of town. His correct trend analysis led him to a failure of vision and nerve. He missed the deeper possibilities of faith in the situation.

Frequently, anomalies within trends are specific to a locality or otherwise so camouflaged in the details that they are difficult to discern. But it is sometimes possible to see within a large trend the anomalies that include more possibilities for action by congregational leaders than the larger trend itself.

  The Tilt toward Large

One trend reshaping American congregational life is the emergence of super-sized congregations, congregations that average more than 2,000 in worship. Scott Thumma, of Hartford Institute for Religion Research, estimates that the number of such congregations has increased from 350 in 1990 to more than 800 in 20051. Citing statistics from the 1998 National Congregations Study, in Congregations in America Mark Chaves painted a picture of the overall significance of this shift to the very large with the subtle observation that, while 59 percent of the congregations in the U.S. have fewer than 100 people in worship on an average Sunday, 50 percent of all worshipers participate in a congregation of 350 or more. This means that the experience that the average worshipper has of congregational life is getting tilted toward the large. People are learning a new idea of what is typical and normal in congregational life—an effect very much magnified by the fact that if somebody who isn’t part of a congregation reads something in the media about congregations it is likely to be about a megachurch. The New England clapboard is being muscled out by the suburban (or exurban) praise-band, big-screen, theatre-style-seating church as the cultural icon for typical congregational life.

There may be some indirect evidence for why this phenomena could be cresting. The founding paradigms for such congregations—congregations like Willow Creek Community Church—are, after all, now about a generation old. They are facing issues of pastoral transition and the turn of the congregational lifecycle. More very
large congregations are seeking to expand by franchising themselves rather than through still larger worship spaces. While worshipping in the huge sanctuary with the big parking lot worked well for the baby-boom minivan generation, observers like Robert Webbers, author of The Younger Evangelicals, are reporting that the next generation wants less polish of production and more authenticity and intimacy. However, lest leaders who are trying to make a go of any other size congregation get their hopes up, indications are that these cultural trends have not yet translated into new statistical realities. Looking beyond “may be” and “could be” to the findings of researchers who take the greatest care in counting things, Thumma is in the midst of a new study of megachurches, and indications are that the water here is still trending downhill. To those who thought they could wait out the megachurch, it must be said: it is time to deal.

That said, this is very much an instance in which it is the anomalies—the outliers—that are going to be of the greatest strategic importance for most congregational leaders. The white clapboard country church might once have had large statistical and cultural power. The post-World War II suburban mainline congregation might have had this also. But only the unimaginative and the uninformed have never thought they didn’t have a lock on what was happening in congregational life, either statistically, culturally, or creatively. The same is true of the megachurch today. To be fair, once you grant to the leaders of megachurches what is surely normal human exuberance over their accomplishments, it is unclear who, other than overconfident pundits and underconfident leaders of non-megachurches, presumes that the megachurch is the only happening thing. Leaders of non-megachurches may have occasion to be irritated by this new cultural icon of success in religious life. They should take occasion to learn from it. They must not be blinded by it.

To begin, megachurches do not all fit neatly into one model, certainly not into the model of the best-known examples. Many of the mainline Protestant megachurches grew because of their deep understanding of what was needed locally rather than by copying anyone else. For example, under the leadership of Jeremiah Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago has grown to over 8,000 members with the slogan “unabashedly black and unapologetically Christian.” Behind its conventional gray stone walls and stained glass windows, Menlo Park Presbyterian in Silicon Valley, California, has become a congregation of 4,000 on an average Sunday, a community built on an understanding of the ministry needed in this technology-rich but relationship-impoverished community.

More significant for most congregational leaders than these details concerning the multiplicity of megachurches are those about the individual churches that get hidden by the fact that the megachurch is the lead story regarding congregational growth. An excellent entry point into these details is a paper by C. Kirk Hadaway, “Congregation Size and Church Growth in the Episcopal Church”2. In this article, Hadaway analyzes the source of the Episcopal Church’s growth during the last decade, reaching the surprising conclusion that while very large congregations did contribute to this growth, “smaller congregations (average Sunday attendance of 100 or less) are the major source of growth.” Moreover, he found that the most likely congregations to be growing were those with average attendance under 100 and those with attendance over 800. If you want to be a growing congregation, the size you least want to be—at least in the Episcopal Church—is between 451 and 800 in average Sunday worship attendance. Paradoxically, it seems that if you want to grow, bigger is not better. Certainly, many small Episcopalian congregations fit the expected pattern of decline, but the point is that the presence of these congregations masks the surprising fact that something else is also happening. As Hadaway concludes: “the presence of very weak, declining churches among the current set of small churches obscures the fact that many small churches have great potential for growth.”

It is notable that many lists of key trends affecting congregations do not discuss the megachurch. It is unclear why this might be when megachurches are such a prominent topic of conversation in ministers’ meetings. It is perhaps for the same reason that so many lists of the factors contributing to child-flourishing do not mention that it is really helpful to be born in the right zip code. Many lists of trends are actually lists of recommendations in disguise. As a recommendation, it does not work well to suggest to a child that she or he should have been born somewhere different. Likewise, it doesn’t work to tell a congregation that it should be a megachurch or imitate one. Yet good, faithful congregation leadership, like good parenting, should not overlook the fact that there are trends that need to be recognized and learned from—and that they need to be worked on in some more thoughtful way than simple imitation.

Considering Diversity

Given that the greatest strategic possibilities often lie in the anomalies running within or alongside the larger trends, leaders are justified in asking how they might find these anomalies and learn from them effectively. The key lies in untying the binds of “is” (or “will be”) and “should.” We need to move from “is” to “perhaps.” It may be useful to illustrate this with one further example. In the wake of the 1990 and especially the 2000 U.S. Census there has been a great deal of discussion about the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of society. This piece of data commonly takes the form of a cautionary injunction directed toward prosperous congregations populated by people of Northern European descent. The trend becomes added ammunition for the argument that Sunday morning should not be the most segregated time in American life. Should congregations be more diverse? Of course. But it may be in the anomalies and the countercurrents that we find the most powerful new possibilities for creating more diversity in our congregations.

For instance, what would it mean if North America were becoming a place where people accumulated racial and ethnic identities rather than lost them? In the 2000 Census there was a significant increase in the number of people who checked more than one box when identifying themselves racially or ethnically. Another surprising and perhaps related development is that some of the most strongly ethnic religious communities—the Eastern Orthodox churches—are finding themselves with a new popularity among young people who do not share their ethnicity.

Within the Protestant Mainline there are also examples of this trend, such as Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota (www.pilgrimstpaul.org). Located near Macalester College, Pilgrim Lutheran some years ago instituted a Celtic service strong in the use of darkness and candlelight. More recently, this congregation added a monthly Nordic service featuring Swedish kulning; contemplative and jazz piano; a 10-year old cantor; and an ensemble of fiddle, nyckeharpa, violin, and vocals. This is occurring in a congregation that emerged from the English District of the Missouri Synod and whose heritage is more German than Scandinavian. The church has a definitive collegiate quality and it is also attracting a good number whose names end in “son” and “sen.” Pilgrim Lutheran lead pastor Carol Tomer, co-creator of the new services, says they emerge out of a “sense of mission and taking the context seriously,” building on the strong Nordic traditions of the Twin Cities and its vibrant folk music scene. Examples such as this cannot be used to negate the evidence of the trend toward diversity. They must not be used to blunt the moral force of the obligation to practic
e radical hospitality. They do suggest, though, that the way individual congregations find of doing this most effectively and faithfully to the uniqueness of their call from God may well be unexpected.

Congregations are most likely to discover the unexpected if they read what is said about broad trends as an injunction to do something specific but rather to listen to what may be happening locally. The most powerfully useful observations are likely to be of the local eddies. Most congregations contain a great deal of knowledge about the most locally significant trends. For instance, school board members or administrators often have a wealth of information about community population trends, and district police sergeants often have encyclopedic knowledge about changing social patterns and the areas in the greatest need of social ministries. This local knowledge needs more to be released than created. Unfortunately, in congregations caught in a lifestyle of meeting immediate needs, people learn that thinking about important local trends doesn’t fit into that lifestyle. Whether in the congregation or not, their knowledge often is amazingly easy to tap if only the congregational leaders find a way to put the question on the table.

In any congregation or judicatory, discussion of trends needs to begin with the presumption that the group already has the most important information that it needs. The challenge is how to provide the hospitality and quality of listening that allow this knowledge to be heard. Here are five questions that may help with this process.


More About Trends 

For a variety of perspectives on the major trends affecting congregational life, see Ian Evison’s “Trends Affecting Congregations: A Resource List” at www.alban.org/ShowArticle.asp?ID=310.

Questions for Reflection 

  • Who are the people in the congregation who, because of their roles outside the congregation, know about relevant trends? People such as social workers, school administrators, town officials, and police precinct captains often have a wealth of information.
  • Who are the people outside the congregations who would be willing to speak with you about your shared interest in the future of the community?
  • What are the groups within the congregation that have perspectives to offer? The members of a parenting class? The youth group? The elderly (a growing population in our society)?
  • How can opportunities be structured to facilitate communication with each of these individuals or groups? Remember the basics: people are most open when communication has been clear, when they are on their own turf, when the setting is comfortable, and when the agenda is clear.


1.For more information, see www.hartfordinstitute.org.
2.To read this article, go to www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/CDR_ChurchSizeandChurchGrowth.pdf.