Those of us with invested interests in congregations—because we work in or for them or because we have invested so much of our time, money, sweat, and hope in them—live with an often unstated or unexamined assumption: of course congregations matter, at least the ones we work with. Everyone knows that, right? We all believe that, right?

To the millions of Americans who are floating out there in the great spiritual fog that is postmodern America, our assumption may not be so self-evident. While the pollsters continue to remind us that more than 65 percent of Americans still claim a linkage of some sort (membership, affiliation) to a local congregation, that nonetheless means that almost 100 million don’t think congregations make a big enough difference to merit belonging to them. Although many of these folks are engaged in serious or even strenuous spiritual journeys, their searches take them everywhere but toward the local congregation. And, of the 170 million who do claim to belong, many find the local congregation of marginal importance, meriting only piecemeal support and haphazard attendance.

The (W)hole Picture
So, how much do our congregations matter—really? One way that I try to help people think about this question is to invite participation in a thought experiment. Pick a community that matters to you—either one you live in currently or one that has been a special place in your life. Now imagine that some new anti-congregational virus has wormed its way into your town or city and suddenly deleted all the local congregations. What would be different? Let’s begin with the easiest clues. Some of our best architecture—and some of our worst—would be gone. There would be little and big holes in the landscapes, small and large gaps in the skylines where great neo-Gothic cathedrals and tacky boilerplate suburban churches once stood. But look more closely. In countless communities, social and benevolent organizations founded by or primarily supported by these institutions soon succumb to the spreading virus and disappear. Many of our schools, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, day care centers, AIDS clinics, and homeless shelters would go. Many more gaps are now apparent on the skyline.

What about the social and professional networks that give rise to our universities, museums, and libraries? Since many of these originated in local congregations, some of these also would disappear. So would legions of volunteers who make possible the Scouting troops, soccer leagues, children’s choruses, not-for-profit organizations, and so forth, that enrich our American way of life. Suddenly, the once-full town or cityscape looks barren and desolate.

Look again. In this now congregation-free zone, what kind of communal life would remain? Lacking the First Baptists, the Temple Beth Israels, the St. Peters and St. Pauls, or the Calvary Chapels, what would the community’s leadership pool look like? What about families? Would they be less stable, more prone to break down? Would there be more or less domestic or substance abuse? More or less addictive behavior, economic ruin, violence? The further we go with this experiment the more total the community meltdown seems to be.

Rich in Good Works
When we drive by a local congregation as we make our ways to work, mall, or concert hall we seldom pause to think of all that we don’t see as we look at manicured lawns, and often very staid-looking buildings. In the last two decades a number of researchers have tried to help us count the good works they do, and the studies never fail to amaze me. Take the 1998 Sacred Places at Risk study from Partners for Sacred Places. This study of downtown congregations (often once proud but now struggling places saddled with aging buildings and dwindling membership rosters) reports their major social contribution: each of these congregations, on average, hosts four community service programs whose combined value is approximately $150,000. In a major city like Philadelphia, the total subsidy provided by churches and synagogues tops $100 million annually (p.8).

No matter how many such studies we pile up, however, I do not believe that we will ever know how much difference our congregations make. One reason for this is that much of their work is so hard to trace and that congregations spend so little time keeping records of what they do.

Another reason we don’t know how much difference congregations make is that we habitually think of congregations as working only when they are gathered. So when worship is taking place at 11:00 A.M. on Sunday or at 9:00 A.M. on Saturday, we can see the congregation at work. When the choir is practicing or the vestry is meeting or the youth group is doing a service project, then we know what the congregation does. But the gathered life of congregations, as important as that is, is only part of the story.

The 1998 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports that there are 373,985 congregations in North America. That figure is disputed by some who argue for a lower count and by others who remind us that a host of unaffiliated store-front congregations are on no organization’s membership list. As the recent Presidential election shows, no count is ever completely accurate. But regardless of the number we choose, it is important to note that no other group of institutions in our land is as numerous or commands the real-life participation of so many people.

Embracing the Mystery
But the full story still eludes us. I have worked for more than two decades as a pastor of a congregation, as a researcher directing large studies of American congregations, as a foundation officer funding numerous other attempts to study congregations, and now as president of an organization devoted to strengthening local congregations. Despite all these ways of engaging with congregations, I confess that I still don’t have the full story. I have never seen a whole congregation. I always see just a part. Further, I am convinced that even though the last quarter century has seen a number of exquisitely detailed anthropological and journalistic accounts of congregational life, no one else has the full story either.

No one has figured out how to track congregation members into their dispersed lives in the world. We have not learned how to find the connections between what happens in the gathered congregational life and in the great world of daily life where millions of congregation members put their congregational values, heritages, beliefs, and commitments into play. My hunch is that, while we may become more adept at seeing some of this picture, we will never grasp the whole. The mystery of the congregation—its total life—will always elude us.

I do get sightings that suggest whole realms of differences made that we seldom fully grasp. A pastor friend of mine actually walked up to a troubled middle-aged male and took a loaded gun out of his hand before that person did violence to others or to himself. How many times have clergy and lay members stopped violence from happening, saved lives, acted courageously, and changed reality? We will never know. An Episcopal congregation in Manhattan rebuilt its burned-out building and now uses its beautifully restored sanctuary to feed daily lunch to hundreds of homeless people. In addition, congregation members become friends to these individuals and lives—both of helped and helpers—are changed. Another pastor friend of mine dared to make a “cold” hospital call on a woman whose home caught fire and who was severely burned when she re-entered the burning building to rescue her young son. Through years of reconstructive surgery and family turmoil, the pastoral relationship changed from one between strangers to a deep friendship. Over time he helped her weave a larger circle of friendship within the local congregation that she ha
d never considered visiting before the tragedy.

So much congregational life takes place in one-to-one encounters that are never reported. The soul-baring times of confession and absolution that go on in pastors’ studies, the reorientation that takes place as people are helped with grief and tragedy, the quiet decisions to give away personal fortunes, or to respond to God’s call—few of us ever see these things happen. Even piano lessons can make a difference. My mother-in-law Lorraine Buuck, a pastor’s wife, used to give lessons to young children in her congregation. Two of those boys have gone on to major careers in church music, one as a leading parish organist in the Midwest, the other as a professor at a major university and organ recitalist who plays concerts around the world. While it would be an overstatement to claim that those career paths were entirely due to one person’s influence or to the complex dynamics of one congregation, it also would be an understatement not to note the congregational link that was crucial to both careers.

There is, finally, a deeper and more important dimension to the elusive mystery of congregations. These are sacred places where people meet God within them, where they tap into a higher power and a larger reality. In the pews at worship time, in the coffee hour and the classroom, there is a sacred presence “in, with, and under” everyday life, a grace that changes everything. And although congregations are not the only places where this grace works, these special sacred places provide an opening in the world—a place to breathe, to see things differently, to change, to find meaning amidst the whirl of life.

So, how much do congregations matter—really? More than we will ever know.

Facing the Challenge
But now comes a cautionary note. These institutions, which are important in more ways than we can fathom, are being challenged today in a host of ways. At this edge of a new millennium we find an irony. At the very moment when more and more people are recognizing that local congregations are indispensable institutions for our public well being—witness the turn to faith-based organizations in the Charitable Choice legislation passed by Congress as it revamped welfare in this country—they are facing economic and leadership challenges of great magnitude. Thousands of local congregations in declining rural communities and changing urban neighborhoods have closed over the past few decades. Thousands more face real survival issues. So at a rare moment of great opportunity to make new contributions, our churches and synagogues face serious challenges that may keep many from seizing the new day.

What can we do to help these precious places continue to make so many necessary differences? We can recognize them for what they are. Gifts of God, places of hope and transcendence, congregations are treasure houses full of resources that can change lives and heal the world. They are also earthen vessels, easily cracked and broken by the human weaknesses within and beyond them. We need to commit new resources and energy to them and help others come to value them. We must tell their stories and encourage them to believe that they really do matter.