Differences Congregations Don't Make... and What to Do about It

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Congregations Make Little if Any Difference in People's Lives

Worship planning differences congregations dont make
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Congregations Make Little if Any Difference in People's Lives

The Barna Group recently released the findings of their study called "What People Experience in Churches." A primary criterion they used to decide who could give them valid information in their otherwise random sample was whether people were "practicing Christians." They defined practicing Christians as "adults who describe themselves as Christians, attend a worship service at least once a month, and say their religious faith is very important in their life." Since attending worship was one of these criteria, I've also written a post about this study on the United Methodist Worship blog.

There, I was looking more specifically at worship practices that do or don't make differences and the kinds of differences people say worship (which is the primary common activity of congregations) actually makes.

Here, I want to look at the same data with a slightly different lens-- one that explores a significant limitation of congregations this study reveals across the board, no matter their size, tradition, or the generation (age) of the persons interviewed.

In every case, the Barna data shows, the percentage of people saying "Attending church affected my life greatly" turns out to be fairly small, and always less than 50%. The highest reported positive response rate to this was 43% from non-Mainline Protestants. The positive response rates based on age and size, however, show results in the 20%- mid 30% range. Indeed, as Barna reports, 46% of persons attending regularly reported participating in a congregation did not affect their lives at all!

Let me try to summarize this bluntly. The vast majority of church attenders, 2/3 or more, report that congregations either do not or only marginally affect their lives.

Even more to the point, perhaps: Congregations make little or no difference in the lives of most people who attend them.

Shock and Horror? Or Wake-Up Call?

Barna's reporting of this finding doesn't make much of this, apart from reporting it. There is no mention of ways to address this reality in their concluding summary, apart from noting that "Millions of active participants find their church experiences to be lacking." They go on to recommend that congregations work at finding ways to enhance people's participation in congregations, apparently on the theory that enhanced participation would equate with higher levels of transformation.

But they provide no evidence at all for that theory. Indeed, as we know from Willow Creek's Reveal study from a few years ago, the reality is that higher levels of participation in congregations do not correlate at all with higher levels of personal transformation or discipleship to Jesus. Not at all.

That doesn't mean congregations are useless in transformation or discipleship. It does mean they're simply not very good at it-- or at least not good at helping people actually go very far with it.

What Reveal shows is that the congregations can be pretty good at helping people have an initial encounter with Christ, and even at fostering a "falling in love experience." But they generally don't do a good job at all-- no matter how amazing their worship is and no matter how many small groups they have inside them-- at moving many people very far in terms of maturing, much less maturity.

As the Wesleys might have put it, congregations can help people encounter Christ and maybe even begin to believe they want to follow him (prevenient and justifying grace). Congregations may provide that kind of foundation for people-- and people do value that. We can see this in Barna's data, too-- as fairly sizable percentages in every size, generation, and tradition reported that congregations help them have a feeling of connection with God, even if they also report those feelings are infrequent.

But congregations across the board do little to help people learn actually how to follow Christ or come to "have the mind of Christ" (sanctification, moving on to perfection/maturity). That's because congregations are not, at their core, discipling communities. That's what discipling communities are for!

And that's why Methodism came to exist in the 18th century-- to provide a venue and formats of Christian community, in addition to (and not in competition with!) congregations, where people could far more regularly experience and grow in sanctifying grace, by attending to all the ordinances of God, making use of all the ordinary means of grace, living out the vows of the baptismal covenant by following the General Rules, and watching over one another in supportive and challenging love as they did so.

This is also at the heartbeat of the emerging missional movements and many organic church movements today. It's also at the heart of what a lot of campus ministries and some Emmaus 4th Day groups (to name just two among many others!) have done brilliantly for decades.

Congregations alone aren't doing this work effectively, haven't done this work effectively, -- and generally speaking, for most people, it appears, just plain can't.

Perhaps the wake up call here is to tell us it's time to quit expecting congregations (and their pastors!) to do things they so clearly don't do and maybe can't do well!

Perhaps it's time instead to remember our own roots as missional Methodists.

As United Methodists, we are calling each other to invest in increasing the number of vital congregations. This is a fine thing to do. GBOD is here to help with that-- and we do it every day. But also, perhaps it's time to start investing just as heavily in leaders who will generate forms of Christian community like Methodist Societies across the US, at least-- even as they already are and have been for decades in places like Zimbabwe! And yes, GBOD is here to help you with that, too-- whenever you are ready.

Shock and Horror? No. Panic moves to "kick-start" congregations into discipling? Not likely to do much but damage a lot of congregations.

Sobriety is what these data point us to. Congregations are invited to look in the mirror, and realize what they are and are not, what they can do well, and what others can do better. Congregations are invited not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, but rather to regard other forms of Christian community that can do some tasks better than they can as their equal partners in fulfilling Christ's commission.

And maybe, just maybe, some congregational leaders, lay or clergy, are being invited to form or partner with missional discipling groups that do what early Methodist Societies (with their class meetings, bands, trial class meetings, select societies, field preaching and society meetings) did so well-- to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land.