Increasingly, all kinds of congregations are actively externally focused. I’ve observed this since 2008. The change is remarkable. Really!
The energy is so powerful. The conversations exciting. The possibilities abundant.
At the Center for Congregations, we receive calls daily from congregational leaders and members inquiring about outreach.
“We want to start a partnership with the local public school.”
“Our congregation has started a new mental health support group.”
“How do we establish a separate 501 (c) 3 related to job training?”
The academic work of the missional church movement has filtered down to the local congregation in positive ways.
There’s a generational shift too
Many young adults find it deeply meaningful to be of service to others. Congregations with young adults are looking at social service and social entrepreneurship. I have been in contact with numerous congregations that have active young adult membership. The focus of these congregations is faith formation, relationships and community engagement. I’m convinced the appearance of these creative, often flourishing, congregations are underreported when we talk about the state of congregational life.
It is ironic that sociological studies report that congregations are declining when their social impact is increasing. Ram Cnaan writes about the effect of congregations on their urban communities. This kind of outreach must be intensifying across the country. Check out Cnaan’s book The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America at http://thecrg.org/resources/the-other-philadelphia-story-how-local-congregations-support-quality-of-life-in-urban-america.
In the last few years there’s been a surge of congregations interested in their communities. Nearly 10% of all Center for Congregations calls include some type of community involvement. For many congregations, the first step is to gather data about the area.
The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) provides the ARDA Community Profile Builder, a free demographic data tool for clergy and lay leaders to learn about people and assets in their communities. This unique tool allows users to view the many characteristics of their communities by searching by ZIP code or local address.
How to Use the Community Profile Builder
- Go to this web address: http://www.thearda.com/demographicMap/ and enter your ZIP code, city and state, or address in the box at the top of the page and click “Go.” After clicking “Go,” the map will take you to your community and show you all congregations in the area.
- Enter the radius (in miles) that you would like the online tool to include. One option is to think of driving distance. How far do people typically travel to attend your congregation?
- Click on the map to set the center point for the radius you selected. A dashed circle will appear showing you the areas from which the tool will draw its data.
- Click the “Profile” button. This will generate your report for the area you selected.
The generated report can include eight different community metrics from religion and housing to income level and ethnicity. It can even include population projections.
Using the Data
This data can help your congregation consider community needs before investing your resources. As an example, in the report you just created look at the Gender/Age tab. A growing number of children could mean an opportunity for children’s programming or a daycare. On the other hand, if there are no young adults nearby, you could make a strategic decision to focus your efforts elsewhere. You might even consider a new building location based on community factors.Want to start learning about your community based on data and not conjecture? Go to http://www.thearda.com/demographicMap/ to get started!
ARDA’s Community Profile Builder is completely free thanks to generous support from the Lilly Endowment and others. The ARDA, which is housed at Pennsylvania State University and has been online since 1998, has more than 16 million pages of content, from profiles of hundreds of past and present religious groups in America to denominational reports and survey findings. Thanks to ARDA Assistant Director Andrew Whitehead for providing this information.
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?