Louis B. Weeks: The miracle of thriving congregations

Perhaps the surprising thing is not that there are so few thriving congregations in the US. It’s that there are so many.

I just returned from teaching in a church that is humming. Village Church (PCUSA) in Prairie Village, Kansas hustles folks in and out for four services each weekend. Some are more informal, some more “traditional.” All exude both dignity and intimacy. All offer opportunities for worship and not just performances. Education and fellowship of all sorts take place, with hospitality rampant, folks learning the Bible and helping others do so too, scores of Stephen Ministers, mission trips and service efforts galore, a long-standing campaign for stewardship of resources, and busy, productive pastors. It’s all a sight to behold.

 I listened recently in a small rural congregation that was humming, too. They had kids of varied backgrounds coming for the Church School program, good leadership from lay people and clergy alike, an outward focus in witnessing to the Gospel, a mix of long-term leaders and newcomers -- all sharing constructively and attracting others to join.

Do you work and worship in such a congregation?

Neither of these congregations is playing the “culture wars” game to gain members. Both are carefully considering the changes in the culture than seem to divide many within congregations and alienate others from denominational affiliation. In fact, while working on two research projects in the past three years, I have been privileged to study a score and more additional thriving congregations.

In the culture in which we live in North America, healthy congregations seem a miracle of the first order. Think of the pressures and competing voices with which Americans currently cope daily -- the polarized politics, the dumbed-down pop culture (or should I say, “Jackassed”?), the unrelenting pressures on workers and the despair of the unemployed, the fears of the retired and the anxieties of the soon-to-graduate, the Sophie’s choice decisions of so many elderly and similar no-win choices for many parents and prospective parents. We Christians carry all these cross currents into the congregations in which we worship and work, if we bother to attend them. I can certainly understand why so many churches are troubled today. It is amazing so many are coping nicely and enjoying their common life.  

I suppose it has been the same many other times (forever?) in the history of the Christian movement. I find it a miracle, for example, that the Corinthian church (or churches) lasted more than one generation.

And reading Mark Valeri’s new book on Puritans in colonial New England, "Heavenly Merchandize," I marvel that they made crucial adjustments in commerce and maintained religious viability in continuous congregational life.

I frequently speak all too glibly of the work of the Holy Spirit, but when I stop to consider the matter seriously, I can see myriad evidences of the Spirit’s quickening power -- in the life in churches as well as in individuals of Christian maturity.

So let me say the word that is appropriate to say in the presence of a miracle: Hallelujah.

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author, most recently, of "To Be a Presbyterian" (Geneva).