Updated! Call to Action Congregational Vitality Presentation on Worship: A Study Guide

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


worship-planning-call-to-actionOn Monday, July 12, United Methodist Communications posted the two major research reports given to the Call to Action Committee created by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. The work of this committee has been to understand our current situation as a Church, to discern better ways of aligning our assets (institutional and leadership) toward achieving the mission of the church, and to make significant recommendations toward that end to the Council and the Connectional Table at their fall meetings in 2010 (late October/early November). The Committee hired two research firms to take on two different aspects of their work. One focused on congregational vitality. The other focused on connectional structures and ministry. You can see all the reports released to the public here.

The first of these reports, the Congregational Vitality Presentation (a PowerPoint presentation converted to .pdf) most directly relates to worship in our Church.

On Thursday, August 26, 2010, United Methodist News Service reported that the Call to Action Committee met on August 23-25 to consider these reports. It also reported that some of the committee's members commended the findings of the Congregational Vitality Presentation for immediate implementation by conferences and congregations. This includes a set of findings about worship in our congregations.

What the Congregational Vitality Presentation Does
Now, open the document (and print it if you like), and take a look at Slide 3.

Here, the research firm (Towers Watson) gives an overview of the work they did. Subsequent slides give more details. But the underlying premise of their work is described here.

Towers Watson began with the six indicators given them by the Call to Action Committee (you can see my commentary on these indicators on the emergingumc blog). They then used data from GCFA to rank every US congregation for which data were available on all six indicators over a five year period of time (to account for any trends).

When they compiled all of this data, they found four large areas that seemed to be predictive of "high vital" outcomes on their scale. These were small groups, lay leadership, worship, and factors relating to the pastor.

They then did some follow-up surveys in each of these fours areas to discover what practices or indicators related to each of these four areas seemed most correlated with high vital congregations.

The final report presents these four areas and the specific indicators/practices in each Towers Watson concluded were most correlated with (if not causative of) high vitality.

What the Congregational Vitality Presentation Does NOT Do
Now one implication that some may draw from this study may be that if there is a statistically higher incidence of particular practices in high vital congregations than in low vital congregations, these may be strong clues, if not roadmaps, to what low vital congregations could do to become high vital over time.

However, the nature of the study and the data themselves do not warrant that implication.

That is because what was tested in this study was the prevalence of practices or indicators relative to vitality based on the six criteria, not causation.

This means that most that can be claimed is a correlation between "high vital" congregations and particular practices they happen to be engaging when the study was done. In other words, this study provides a good snapshot of what is, or what was during the period studied, but it does not explain the meaning of what is and cannot predict what might be.

The work of making meaning and taking faithful next steps is up to you in your particular context.

And that's why I'm offering this study guide-- to help you understand what the findings here might mean where you are, and then to have the conversations with each other, with leaders in your congregation, with other colleagues, and always with God, that may help you take the most fruitful next steps where you are.

What does the Presentation Say about Worship?
The Congregational Vitality Presentation identifies five practices that occur more frequently in high vital churches than in low vital churches (Slides 38-43). It also identifies five practices that seem not to be associated with statistically significant differences in vitality (Slide 44).

Five Higher Frequency Practices in High Vital Congregations

  1. "High Vital Churches tend to provide a mix of both contemporary and traditional services." (Slide 38)While there is a general claim that findings such as this would be true across all sizes of churches (Slide 2), Slide 39, shows that is not the case for this claim. There is a significantly higher incidence of both kinds of services in large churches (350 and over in average attendance), but there is no real difference in mid-size churches (100-349), and the difference goes the other way for small and very small churches (99 and under). That is, for these smaller churches, it's actually more likely that two distinct services (one traditional, one contemporary) is associated with low vitality than with high vitality.What conclusions do you draw from this?worship-planning-call-to-action-2

    Digging a little deeper, what do you notice about the number of congregations by size in each sample set in Slide 39? How do these numbers compare with the overall sample of United Methodist congregations by size? (Source, GCFA 2006 as appearing in the 2004-2007 GBOD/UMPH Music and Worship Study)What additional conclusions do you draw?
  2. Preaching in traditional worship services in high vital churches tends to be more topical and less based on the lectionary than in low vital churches. (Slide 40)In high vital congregations, 63% report they use the lectionary and/or some blend of lectionary and topical preaching in their traditional worship service. 37% report using topical preaching only.In low vital congregations, 78% report using the lectionary and/or some blend of lectionary and topical preaching in their traditional worship service. 22% report using topical preaching only.What does this finding mean?Is there something inherent in using the lectionary or using a series that inhibits or supports vitality?Or might there be other factors that lead to this finding? If so, what might those other factors be?It's a reasonable question, especially given that the same question applied to contemporary worship services showed no differences in vitality (See Slide 44).For more on the question of lectionary versus series preaching, see the two-part article on this blog, "Lectionary Planning/Preaching or Series Planning/Preaching" (Part I, Part 2).
  3. Pastors who are rated as effective for inspiring the congregation through their preaching are more likely to have high vital congregations (Slide 41).The slide indicates that 81% of congregations with high vitality consider their pastor effective and say their pastor's preaching is "inspiring," while the same is true for 65% of "low vital" congregations.What are the implications of this finding for our appointive process? What are its implications for our pastors and congregations?
  4. High vital churches are more likely to use contemporary music in their contemporary service (Slide 42).In "low vital" congregations, the bulk of the music used (57%) is actually not contemporary, but rather "blended." (What is meant by "blended music" is not defined). Only 36% of these low vitality congregations with both kinds of services responded that they used contemporary music.Those stats are roughly reversed for "high vital" congregations in their contemporary services. There, 56% use contemporary music in their contemporary services, while 39% report using "blended" music.At the same time, Slide 44 shows there is no difference in vitality in traditional worship services no matter what kind of music is used.Given the findings about congregations with both kinds of services in Slide 39, and the sample set involved, what conclusions do you draw about this finding? What might its implications be where you are?
  5. High vital churches are more likely to use multi-media in their contemporary services. (Slide 43).The slide shows that 86% of high vital congregations use multi-media in their contemporary services, while 66% of low vital congregations also do so.Once again, though, Slide 44 shows that the use of multi-media has no correlation with vitality in traditional worship services.If the vast majority are using multimedia in contemporary services, what is the meaning of the difference between high and low vital congregations on this point?Slide 39 may provide important clues. You may also find helpful Dan Dick's comments in his article, "Creating the Frankenchurch Monster."

Two Additional Practices that Do not Appear to Make a Difference

In addition to the three non-correlated practices already discussed alongside three that were correlated with high vital congregations in the study, Slide 44 names 2 others that seem to have no statistical correlation with high vitality. These were only mentioned and not commented upon. But the remaining two probably deserve some further attention.

  1. The use of experiential activities (prayer stations, art, straw polls, etc.)This could be an interesting finding given the claims of a number of writers about "postmodern" and "experiential worship" and the practice and teaching of one well-known and fast growing mega-church in particular (Seacoast in South Carolina) that such practices are actually essential for worship that seeks to reach younger adults and postmoderns.What could be interesting is that this finding could at least suggest that such claims may need to be tested further rather than merely asserted by "experts" with publishing contracts and speaking tours.But we really don't have enough information in the presentation itself to know whether this finding turns out to be interesting or not. Maybe it is more likely that it is not interesting. It could be that the sample set of UMC congregations behind this finding are fairly small, so small that in analysis that looks at impacts (which usually involves some averaging) the resulting impact found is within the margin of error.What do you think this might mean where you are?
  2. The length of the pastor's sermon.I can guess why this turns out not to be associated any more with high vital congregations than any other type. I've heard sermons of many different lengths in United Methodist congregations, ranging from under 10 minutes to well over 90. And my experience has been that whether the sermon is 10 minutes or 90 minutes, it can either be a home run or a total wipeout. It's not necessarily length that matters-- but context (time, location, and the nature of the gathered community) and delivery.What are your guesses?But more importantly, what seems to make sermons of whatever length more associated with vitality in the life of the congregation where you are?

The Most Important Slide in the Study for Worship
The most important slide in the study for worship-- and every other indicator the study presents-- is one I haven't talked about yet: Slide 4, repeated on Slide 52.

This is important because it shows how each of the five worship practices that were shown to occur more frequently in high vital churches relates to the vitality indicators provided by the Call to Action Committee. And also, by implication, how each does not!

Take a look at Slide 19. This provides a listing of the three categories of impact (attendance, growth, and engagement) that are then summarized graphically in the chart on Slides 4 and 52.

Attendance refers to average Sunday worship attendance as a percentage of membership and the number of children, youth and young adults attending as a percentage of membership.

Growth refers to increases over a five year period in average worship attendance as a percentage of membership, membership itself (I am assuming here professing membership-- but the study does not say), and financial benevolence beyond the local congregation. It also refers to changes over a three year period in annual giving per attendee.

Engagement refers to professions of faith per member and average annual giving per attendee.

In worship, none of the four factors listed (this slide does not include "inspiring preaching") impacts all three areas of vitality-- attendance, growth and engagement.

Offering both traditional and contemporary worship services only occurs statistically more frequently in combination with engagement. It does not occur more frequently with attendance or growth.

Offering more topical preaching and using more contemporary music in contemporary worship are associated with attendance and growth, but not engagement.

Using more multi-media in contemporary worship is only associated with attendance.

What implications do you see in these findings?

What Should We Do from Here?
Talk amongst yourselves and others!

You can start by talking here-- in the comments section!

But don't stop there.

Use this article as a study guide for you and a group of leaders to think together about worship where you are and how the findings of this study may or may not affect you in your particular setting.

And then develop your own study guide for the other areas covered in the presentation (Lay leadership, pastoral leadership, and small groups) and have similar conversations about the meaning and implications of this study with the relevant groups.

Some of the results here may challenge some prejudices you may have. Or you may find that your experience and insights about ministry in your setting challenge some of the findings here-- since as you've already seen, some of the findings here really may not apply to your congregation or setting well at all. But that doesn't mean you have nothing to learn or talk about!

The Congregational Vitality Presentation has offered a gift to our Church and our congregations. My hope is this study guide helps you and your congregation assess what this gift means for you so that whatever level of vitality you may be experiencing now you may find it enhanced, increased and strengthened in the years to come.