How would you describe a thriving congregation? Perhaps a thriving congregation has young people attending worship. Another thriving congregation might manage conflict well.
At the Center for Congregations in Indiana, we interact with all kinds of flourishing congregations. Here’s what we’re learning from faith communities that thrive.
- Focus on congregational assets rather than problems. Reframe observations as a positive question “What is going well?”
- Learn to do new things. This encourages intentional growth as a community. See the book How Your Congregation Learns.
- Help your people to live life well. Connect teachings, worship, and faith convictions to the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
As part of our work, we captured the stories of 12 innovative, thriving congregations around the United States. Below are some of their common practices.
Intentional Practices of Innovative Congregations
For more information, see the book Divergent Church.
On the surface, thriving may look like growing worship attendance or conflict management. By considering the strategies and practices listed above, your congregation can take new steps to thrive.
For further discussion
Brainstorm strategies or practices that happen within thriving congregations.
The new Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey is in the works. The survey officially launches next year, and FACT is in the process of finalizing participants now. Faith groups and denominations will survey their congregations early next year. Take a look at the list of groups that have agreed to participate and ensure that your group is represented. If your religious body or denomination isn’t listed, you can contact FACT at email@example.com to inquire about partnership opportunities.
FACT is an interfaith research organization that provides key information on a range of subjects relating to congregational life in America. Previous FACT surveys resulted in relevant findings about conflict, outreach, young adults, spiritual vitality and more.
The goal for this new report is to survey 20,000 congregations in 2020.
Most people can carry a casual conversation with a young adult. If that seems like a challenge in your congregation, check out the first part of this blog Relationships: A Millennial Perspective.
How about discussing values and faith beliefs with that younger generation? It’s accurate to say “times have changed.” In many parts of the United States, it’s no longer assumed that people go to worship every week. This makes conversations about faith challenging –but not impossible.
As a congregational consultant and millennial, here’s what I think you should know about millennials and faith.
We value spirituality and group connection. Contrary to statistics declaring the decline of religion in America, millennials do care about spirituality. It just looks different. Consider the Harvard Divinity study How We Gather. Thriving millennial movements like Crossfit and The Dinner Party draw upon common elements: community, personal and social transformation, purpose finding, creativity and accountability.
Action step: Evaluate which of those elements your congregation does well. Practice talking about those benefits and invite potential newcomers.
Value us through hospitality. I appreciate worship services that allow casual clothes and free coffee. It’s not about the cool leader in jeans or the best local brew. It’s about inviting us to come as we are. If it’s between wearing jeans and not showing up, it’s better to have us show up in jeans.
Action step: Take time to evaluate the new visitor experience. This list of 50 Ways to Welcome New People will help. While staying true to your congregation’s culture, eliminate unnecessary discomfort for visitors.
We are likely to question faith and require a safe space to do that. Rather than accepting doctrine or marketing, young adults prioritize exploration and personal experiences to determine their beliefs. This allows for rich, yet messy, thinking. Author of The New Copernicans Dr. John Seel explains this well. I highly recommend checking out his book.
Action step: Practice active listening and humility to prioritize relationships. This is especially important when the other person doesn’t share your beliefs. Celeste Headlee’s TEDTalk will help you brush up on conversation skills. Once you build a trusting space, it becomes easier to dialogue about faith.
The purpose of youth ministry is to foster the personal development of faith, theology and relationships for young people ages 6th-12th grades. This usually happens through a variety of lessons, games, resources and relationships. But how do you know if your youth group is hitting the mark?
The Center for Congregations has worked with more than 60 congregations to create vibrant youth ministries. Here’s what we discovered about the most successful congregations.
Effective Youth Ministries
• Devote financial and human resources as a priority to nurture young people.
• Equip youth to use their faith as a lens for making life plans and decision-making.
• Incorporate young people into congregational leadership and the planning process.
These larger goals will likely take time and decisions from your leadership. Below are small ways to strengthen your youth ministry.
Small Changes, Big Impact
You can make subtle changes to integrate youth into the fabric of your congregation. Recruit adult volunteers to connect with the youth and build intergenerational relationships. Allow the youth to step into meaningful and appropriate roles of responsibility. That could be mowing the lawn, assisting in worship or serving in the nursery. Small changes over time will help youth ministry become a natural part of your culture.
Many elements make you the person you are. You are shaped by your race, your geographic location, and your genetic structure. Your personality is formed by your family, your friends, and the choices you make along the way. You are influenced by education, social affiliations and friendships.
All of us are formed by the company we keep. The company we keep includes the congregation you attend. Whether you are aware of it or not, the activities of your congregation create certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make you who you are. In this way, your congregation has formative power.
I was reminded of the importance of being part of a religious community when a clergy person described a project happening in his congregation. He told me about a booklet being produced by the staff called Rule of Life. The Rule of Life is a guidebook outlining what it means to be part of the congregation.
The pastor says, “We want to encourage people to live a certain way of life.” Part of the guidebook is written as a catechism with answers to be learned and recited. Other parts of the guide describe specific practices in which one participates as a member of the congregation: at noon every day we are going to pray this Psalm.
If you read Psalm 23 every day, that Psalm is going to become part of who you are. The virtue of trust represented in the lines of the Psalm will more likely become part of your heart, mind and soul.
What elements are most formative in a congregation?
Of course, it depends on the particular congregation. I have observed and experienced the following activities having a positive impact on adherents:
- Testimony, telling the story of their lives
- Religious practices, particularly worship, prayer, singing, study of scripture, and rites of passages or sacraments
- Reflection on practice: not just doing things but thinking about their impact with others
- Relationships including across generations
- Liminal experiences: pilgrimages, mission trips, cross-cultural experiences, spiritual retreats
Here is an exercise to consider doing with a congregational board, team or class.
Remember a time when a congregational experience formed or reinforced a positive attribute in you. Write down the experience. Take turns sharing the stories out loud. Listeners are invited to ask open, curious questions to enhance group reflection. What themes are evident? What further growth might the congregation support?
Center for Congregations CRG Director Aaron Spiegel spoke with Gerardo Martí about his recent CRG guest blog post. Gerardo is a professor, researcher and author of Latino Protestants in America. Below are highlights of their conversation.
Aaron: What are the primary motivators for American Latinos moving from Catholicism to Protestantism?
Gerardo: Roman Catholic observers have long been aware of what has been labeled “the defection” of Latinos away from Catholicism to Protestantism. It isn’t new. The esteemed Catholic sociologist Andrew M. Greely documented mass defections in the late 1980s. When pressed for an explanation, he speculated that the appeal for Latinos switching to evangelicalism was based in their upward economic mobility: Protestant churches were potent symbols of middle-class respectability. Current research is not willing to posit such massive changes to a single determining factor like this.
It is also important to note that more recent immigrants from Central and South America arrive into the United States already Protestant. That means more Protestant churches are now available to join. These same Latinos may have found themselves in Catholic churches in the past, but now more immigrants find (and are willing to start) local churches based on Protestant beliefs and liturgy.
Also significant, we cannot ignore the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse among priests that has hung over the American Catholic church, which has disillusioned many to leave Catholicism. Furthermore, many find it difficult to relate to priests in America, clergy who are less likely to be of Hispanic ancestry in comparison with local Latino Protestant pastors who tend to be indigenous, speaking similar dialects, often coming from the same region and sharing similar cultural experiences.
Additionally, our research finds the pursuit of more intimate and more intense spiritual experience to be important. In our interviews, Latinos say they were eager for the deeper spiritual nourishment they discovered in Protestant churches, finding their priests to be dismissive of their desires and questions, while discovering excitement and zeal in a local “Christian” church. More than one respondent simply said, “I found God here.”
Finally, the greater independence of many Protestant churches translates into greater organizational agility and adaptability to their local environment. Even when a particular church is unable to change, it is increasingly likely that Latinos can find a newer church designed to appeal to new sensibilities. This means that the competition among churches is not just between Catholic and Protestant but among Protestants themselves.
Aaron: You stated in your blog post that Pew Research reported that half of all American Latinos will be Protestant by 2030. Why is this significant?
Gerardo: The dramatic increase in Latino Protestantism is largely unanticipated. Considering that Latinos in America are stigmatized as “foreigners” in far too many places in the United States (as is evident in our political controversies regarding illegal immigration), this may result in a renegotiation of both the nature of Protestantism in America as well as the understanding of American Latinidad.
For example, Protestantism is traditionally the mainstream culture of white Americans, serving as a base for promoting privilege and status. The increase of Latino American Protestants may more fully emphasize the racialization of “white Christianity.”
Also, religion among Latinos has often been assumed to be steeped in Catholicism. Approaching Latino religiosity apart from Catholicism can be disorienting for religious leaders who simply have not known Latinos as Protestants. In addition, because the broad Latino community retains strong social and cultural ties to Catholicism, the increase of Protestants can be the source of tensions among family and friends when approaching the nature of the sacred through life-cycle events like weddings and funerals and church-based social events (festivals, holidays, parties, etc.) intended to reach larger social networks.
Aaron: Are American Catholic leaders trying to figure out why they aren’t “automatically” getting Latinos? Is there something “to be done” to change the trend?
Gerardo: All churches whose ancestry are Anglo-European (as well as Asian, i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) tend to lump all “Latino” ancestries together, and Catholic parishes often segregate congregations within a single church to serve particular ethnic groups. However, even when services are conducted or translated into Spanish, the idioms, illustrations, pronunciations, and vocabularies between Hispanic groups can be vastly different. Appointing a Mexican-American minister does not automatically create connections to Cuban, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran people in their neighborhoods. Similarly, relational connections — the family and friends people most likely lead new guests in their churches — do not necessarily overlap between various Latino ethno-racial groups.
Beyond the challenge of outreach to different cultural groups within the general category of Latino, all churches are challenged to be self-reflective regarding their willingness to be truly hospitable to groups that are socially distant from their own. I would caution church leaders against merely setting up another segregated ministry. While I commend congregations that support separate Latino ministries, it is worth considering further the extent a congregation can more fully welcome and incorporate Latinos (and other racial/ethnic groups) into the ongoing ministries of the congregation. While pastor and paid staff may be friendly initially, the successful incorporation of Latinos into obviously non-Latino settings takes a deliberate effort. Lay leaders and regular members must be willing to take into their lives new relationships.
Leaders are challenged to evaluate their own ministry: How wide are the arms of love that can be extended in your congregation? How welcoming is your church to “the alien, the stranger, and the foreigner”? Does your church have intentional boundary-crossers who regularly reach out to those who are unfamiliar and culturally distinct?
The Catholic Church shows pastoral commitment and concern for Latinos, yet the Church would benefit from even more aggressive outreach toward recruitment of Latino men and women from a variety of ancestral backgrounds for lay and full-time ministry.
Aaron: Some readers may associate Protestant with mainline denominations, yet you imply high numbers of Latinos connected with evangelical and Pentecostal movements. Is there a breakdown and explanation of the divisions within Protestantism?
Gerardo: To avoid confusion, our research uses the label “Protestantism” to signify all religious orientations that base themselves from the stream of congregational movements after the Reformation. Today, the data on Latino Protestants captures three distinct groups: Pentecostal – characterized by an emphasis on healing, tongues, and related ministries centered on the infusion of the Holy Spirit; Evangelical – non-Pentecostal churches that emphasize preaching, bible study, adult baptism, and emotive worship; and Mainline – churches with affiliations to historic denominational structures like Methodism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, etc.
In terms of proportional representation, the most recent data indicate that the total population of Latino Protestants consists of a little more than one-third being Pentecostal, a little more than one-third Evangelical, and a little less than one-third Mainline. The dip in Mainline affiliation may have to do with the historic absence of significant Latino membership among these churches and the lack of educational credentials qualifying Latino leaders for ordination. In addition, it has been more difficult to establish new Mainline congregations at the pace at which Latino-centered Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations are being established, especially with the added requirements assumed for ordination in Mainline churches.
Aaron: Did the Latino community bring their high commitment and participation in church with them as immigrants or is this an American Latino phenomenon?
Gerardo: We are still working to understand the exceptionally high rates of religious intensity among Latino Protestants. Certainly, part of their congregational fervor has to do with the momentum of church centrality and involvement already cultivated in their countries of origin. Even so, Latino Pentecostals and Evangelicals are generally much more involved in their church communities than those from the Mainline. In addition, most Latino-centered Protestant churches are smaller and therefore require higher involvement among volunteers and lay leaders to sustain their ministries over time.
Aaron: Are there unique challenges for Latino churches that aren’t being addressed by denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations? How can organizations like the Center for Congregations be most helpful to the Latino community?
Gerardo: The challenges for sustaining the continued vitality of the Latino Protestant churches in America are many. They include:
Availability and affordability of pastoral training: Latino Protestants mirror their secular counterparts in having lower levels of college attendance and graduation. Therefore, the great majority of Latino pastors committed to ministry lack the educational background necessary to be admitted to seminaries. Consequently, they also lack the means to afford classes and study materials. In response to this situation, a variety of local Bible institutes have emerged, and many seminary and divinity schools in the United States have made generous arrangements to accept Bible institute credit to provide a pathway for graduate education. In addition, some larger churches and theological schools are expanding to provide training in ministry explicitly oriented toward Latinos. Denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations can further fund, mentor, and organizationally bridge opportunities for more formal pastoral training.
Financial pressures for salaries, rent, buildings, technology, and ministry infrastructure: Because Latino ministries do not usually include contributions from wealthy donors, church leaders are constantly pressed to meet the financial requirements to build ministry programs and serve the needs of their people. Even when aligned with larger denominational structures, the stories we hear from leaders in the field reveal how difficult it can be to obtain funding. Latino leaders believe priorities for Latino ministry to be quite low. Unfortunately, Latino ministries also suffer from the stigma and prejudice that is all too common among white-dominant communities. Latinos are sidelined, with their issues being accorded less importance. With Latino persistent population growth, the infrastructure for Latino ministry is an area of investment worth considering for the future of Christianity in America.
Latinos administratively lumped together, often with other “ethnic” ministries: Latino groups desire to have their own distinctive pastoral and congregational needs met. Yet lack of understanding or poor administration can often leave all “ministries of color” combined with little regard for significant distinctions in their histories and needs. In one organization, we found that all ethno-racial ministries, also joined with women’s ministries, placed under a single department head. Latino migrations are complicated, resulting in practical pastoral differences. With some reflection, church leaders would quickly realize that such administrative streamlining leaves important differences ignored and therefore unaddressed.
Absence of respect or authority in decision making within larger structures and networks: Latino leaders bring a great deal of passion and experience to their ministries. We have met many who began their ministries while still teenagers. Yet, their ministry experiences are often ignored and their input rarely sought. These Latino leaders feel like perpetual guests when participating in larger structures and networks of ministry, leaving their own distinctive perspectives and concerns ignored. Similarly, too few Latino pastors and consultants have attained status as “experts,” leaving a highly skewed and incomplete perspective coming from the few who have made it into elite spaces of influence. While non-Latino leaders should make an effort to be more inclusive, the few Latino church leaders with influence should not hoard their visibility and make an equally strong effort to expand the public influence of their colleagues and peers.
Latinos are firmly established in the American spiritual landscape. Attention to their spiritual development should be a priority. Of course, with commitment, planning, and foresight, the challenges listed above can be addressed with practical initiatives centered on further development of pastoral leadership. I trust that concerted effort, consensual planning, and a host of brilliant minds can certainly meet these challenges moving forward.
Tags: Religion In America, Contemporary Trends, Latino, Latinex, Multi Cultural, Ethnic, Diversity Race, Protestantism, Catholicism
Latino Protestants are experiencing remarkable growth, according to Pew Research Center. Pew reports that by 2030, half of all Latinos in America will be Protestant. While some gather in Latino megachurches – especially in the southwest – containing thousands of members, the great majority attend smaller congregations, often characterized by part-time pastors, relational intimacy formed through networks of friends and family, and a high proportion of lay volunteers. Often unseen, these smaller congregations are remarkably significant to the lives of millions of Latinos in America.
Religion is important to daily life
Overall, Latino Protestants are characterized by high levels of religious commitment. For example, the book American Grace by Robert Putman and David Campbell reports that 85 percent of Latino Evangelicals indicate that religion is very important in daily life. Their intensity is intertwined with their church involvement. According to Pew Research Center, Latino Protestants tend to be more religiously active, attending church services and small groups more often than their Catholic counterparts. Attending church every week is a far greater priority among Latino evangelicals than Latino Catholics: 62 percent of Latino Protestants attend worship on a weekly basis, compared to 40 percent of Latino Catholics. The most religiously intense Latino Protestants are evangelical (71 percent), Pew reports.
Latino Protestants also spend a lot of time each week involved in congregational events. The majority of both Latino Pentecostals (70 percent) and evangelicals (63 percent) spend at least three hours a week in church activities, compared to mainline (36 percent) and Catholic (32 percent). About one-third of Latino Pentecostals indicated that they spent more than seven hours per week engaged in church-related activities, states Norman Eli Ruano in his dissertation “The Holy Ghost Beyond the Church Walls: Latino Pentecostalism(s), Congregations, and Civic Engagement.” That means that in addition to attending weekly worship services, they spend more time than Latino Catholics participating in afternoon meals, midweek studies, lay leadership meetings, cleanup and repairs around the building, practicing music, volunteering with youth, and much more.
Of weekly activities, Pew Research reports that group prayer or Bible study are especially important: 48 percent of Latino Protestants attend a group at least weekly. In contrast, only 17 percent of Latino Catholics indicated the same level of regularity. In other words, Latino Protestants have more than twice the rate of involvement in congregational activities – a powerful energizer for generating religious commitment and a significant resource for use by pastoral leadership.
What makes churches so central to the spiritual lives of Latino Protestants?
In his book Latinos in the United States, David T. Abalos’ suggests cultural connections make for strong bonds among Latino Protestants. At least in some cases, Latino Protestantism gains adherents by offering an ethno-religious haven. For example, many of the pastors of their churches are Latino, speak Spanish, share similar hardships, and bring a more egalitarian attitude to governance. In contrast, Latinos Catholics are less likely to have a priest with a Latino heritage. Moreover, being regular community with other Latino Protestants offers comfort and comradery. In this interpretation, Latino Protestantism congregational life offers an ethnic familiarity and consolation in their Latinidad largely absent in many Catholic churches.
In contrast, Latino Protestants may not feel as welcome in non-Latino churches, which leads them to more readily accept invitations from friends and family into Latino-centric churches. This is especially likely in a political climate where Latinos are seen as illegal and unwanted foreigners, despite the majority of Latino Protestants being legal citizens and born in America.
Immersion in the church
According to our interviews for the book Latino Protestants in America, for many their immersion in Protestant churches is due to practices that differentiate these churches from Catholicism: specifically, more emotionally-immersive worship, greater encouragement of lay leadership, and multiple opportunities for women’s and youth’s direct involvement.
Yet another important reason for high levels of church participation may be a consequence of their conversion to Protestantism—sociologically, converts have higher rates of congregational activities when compared to lifelong Protestant Latinos.
Finally, while all congregations depend on members volunteering their time as a resource, churches that are financially strained often create multiple, meaningful opportunities to sustain the ministry. Volunteer service directly saves money on hiring staff or outsourcing services. Moreover, service commitments, attendance at activities, and religious intensity all reinforce each other.
In the end, Latino Protestant congregations capture and channel the religiosity of Latino Protestants, an intensity that is a defining cultural ethos of their churches. Given continuing evidence of their sustained growth, the forces contributing to the centrality of church among Latino Protestants is likely to remain for some time.
Author’s note: Latino Protestants are mainline, evangelical, and Pentecostal. It has been crucial to our work that leaders do not define them as mostly or even dominantly Pentecostal, and folding Pentecostal and Evangelical together create its own analytical problems. In writing about existing research, there is a difficulty in maintaining these distinctions because the best available work sometimes ONLY discusses evangelicals. Our work seeks to correct this, even when we use that research to provide the best overview of current dynamics as possible. We want to emphasize that in contrasting Protestants from Catholics, we are drawing attention to the many Christian orientations that exist within Protestantism and in the case of our research, in the Latino community.
In a gathering of congregational leaders, the word “millennial” enters the conversation. A wave of uneasiness settles in — judgment, honest confusion or distress. What is the future of our congregation with these young people?
As a church-going millennial and congregational consultant, I observe these conversations through a few different lenses. Here’s what you should consider.
“What if millennials are the carriers and not the cause [of cultural change].” – Mike McHargue
Thought leader Mike McHargue, voice of The Liturgists podcast and The New Copernican Series, encourages a broader perspective of our changing lifestyles and overall culture. To quote a friend, “I wasn’t born this way, glued to my phone. I didn’t choose to have a six-second attention span.”
Action step: Try withholding judgment in favor of seeking understanding. You might learn something and uncover that millennials make more sense than you thought.
We are individuals with unique stories and normal human needs. Labeling us “millennials” doesn’t even scratch the surface of who we are. We have personalities, varied hardships and defining life experiences. What we do share is an isolating, technology-driven culture. Because of this, we especially need authentic conversation and relationships.
Action step: Try getting to know us on an individual level. This step is recommended in Center staffer Wendy McCormick’s Engaging Young Adults article. My best relationships started by getting together outside of the worship building. Meet us for coffee or invite us to a sports game, a game night, lunch or a local show.
We’ll likely collaborate with you to do something. As society gets faster, our time is important. Help us use time together to further our goals and contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Giving us a meaningful role will make us feel valued and grow our commitment to the congregation.
Action Step: Ask us what we’re interested in or passionate about. Support us in making those ideas happen. Derrick Feldmann’s Social Movements For Good will help you understand social movements of this generation and what makes them successful.
As you get to know young adults, you’ll be able to spend more time together doing the life-giving activities of your congregation.
I’m having more conversations with congregations that characterize themselves as multicultural. For example, I met with a governing board of a Caucasian congregation that had recently welcomed 20 refugees from Ethiopia. A board member said, “We sing songs that are new to us.”
Another pastor called the Center for Congregations looking for resources related to talking about racial justice. I asked, “Is your congregation predominately African-American or mainly Caucasian?” She said, “We are multicultural. We are about 60% white, about 30% black, and we have others who are recent immigrants from Latin America.”
A multicultural congregation is typically racially diverse. Yet, the diversity also stretches beyond racial inclusivity. A multicultural congregation holds and seeks racial, cultural, class, generational, gender and other differences to be represented among its participants.
Those who study multicultural congregations note that when 20% percent of the participants represent the non-dominant group, the non-dominant group begins to transform the congregation in significant ways. The style of prayer changes. People learn facts they didn’t know before (“there are over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia!). New friendships are made.
A rich congregational experience
A multicultural congregation includes a diverse range of people in attendance. More robustly, the congregation expresses its religious claims and commitments through the activities and practices of more than a single, dominant culture.
Many effective multicultural congregations become diverse because of unfolding circumstances, as opposed to deciding to become such a congregation. For example, a congregation may find itself located in a zip code with an influx of immigrants. Or a congregation might observe that the public-school district in which they reside includes students of a different race than most of its members.
Resources you can use
If you are addressing the challenges and opportunities of becoming a multicultural congregation your governing board might begin to deepen its consideration by reading and discussing some outside resources. I recommend these two – a blog titled Different Models for Multicultural Congregations and Ministries and the article Against the Current.
As your knowledge and expertise deepens, I recommend the web resource Striving Toward Multi-Ethnic Church to increase your capacity as a multicultural congregation.