Adjusting to a new normal

One significant trend within church life is the changing nature of congregating. That makes it increasingly important for congregations to experiment with new models and share what they are learning.

A pastoral leader recently observed that her congregation is recalibrating its understandings of active and committed participation in church life. In her setting, “frequent church attendance” is now about two times per month for members, three times per month for leaders. She said that their former expectations for congregational participation at the peak of summer vacation season are now their expectations year-round.

While the poll data seem a bit conflicted about how pervasive this pattern is within American church culture and there are certainly regional variations, it is safe to say that her congregation is not the only one to experience this change. Anecdotally, many congregations – especially medium-sized ones -- are finding that fewer people attend and those that do are less consistent.

In her setting, this changed and changing nature of participation in the life of the congregation is sparking conversations about the nature of discipleship and commitment and the shape of Christian community today. The clergy and staff continue to teach newcomers about the importance of regular worship attendance and sharing in the life of the gathered community. They teach and preach that being together is an essential part of Christian faith and practice, a vital discipline for spiritual growth and maturation.

But they hear a now-familiar litany of conflicting obligations, ranging from Sunday morning soccer practice to work commitments to family travel. Members and leaders insist that they are deeply committed to the life of the church; they just won’t be there on Sunday morning.

In response, the congregation is reimagining everything from Christian formation and educational programs to the Sunday morning preaching calendar.

No longer do they plan and offer extended learning series, each dependent upon and building upon the previous weeks’. Offerings are now stand-alone opportunities, allowing participants to drop in and drop out. While the church uses the lectionary, which by its very nature makes the preaching of series-based sermons difficult, preachers now rotate much more frequently to ensure that each sermon stands alone. This means that if this is your first Sunday in four weeks, the sermon is as accessible as if you had been there every Sunday.

This changed participation is also sparking their institutional imagination for new and alternative ways of “being together.” They are creating opportunities for members and leaders to gather throughout the week in the church building and out in their community, both in person and online. It has them evaluating what is most formative and transformative about time spent together and adjusting their ministries accordingly.

In their column on deep trends affecting Christian institutions, Greg Jones and Nathan Jones write that one significant trend within American church life is the changing nature of congregating. While they highlighted multi-campus congregations and new monastic communities, congregations like my friend’s or Awakenings Movement in Detroit underscore other ways that congregating is changing.

If the most familiar models for ministry and congregational life are based on outdated (or increasingly outdated) assumptions about participation, congregations that are experimenting with new models are more important than ever, and how they share what they are learning will be crucial for the future of vibrant communities of faith.