Do you feel lost? Congregational life is bewildering these days. We see far fewer people in our worship spaces and classrooms, even as our levels of giving and ministry to neighbors may remain stable.

And when we have time to make a new plan, nearly three years into the pandemic, it still may need to be changed as soon as it is in writing. Whew!

Finding a guide feels imperative, and a metaphorical look heavenward might be the key.

Looking up, we see a familiar sky. The stars are in the same places, visible to us in good conditions. For the church, these stars are Jesus’ teachings about the reign of God — the promises of a new creation, a new Jerusalem and beloved community. The stars are signs of God’s presence, and they show us the way.

The road maps we’ve used to navigate on the ground, however, are not consistently accurate. The maps are a metaphor for the programs and measures, designed mostly in the 20th century, congregations have depended on to steer faithfully in our journey.

The best example of an unreliable map is average Sunday attendance. In earlier times, the average attendance provided guidance for the size of a congregation’s staff, the nature of the governing system and the role of clergy. A congregation could chart its own course, but it could also follow a reliable path marked out by attendance. Notice that average attendance never guided theology or mission. It provided an operational map.

Today, the participation of people in worship can be in-person or virtual. It can be synchronous or on-demand. Such participation is worthy of measuring, but the number itself does not give many hints about what else to do. It does not provide direction, just information.

Each congregation in each community is in the process of determining which of the old maps are helpful and which no longer work very well.

An old map that often works pretty well involves learning from and working with neighbors. In small towns and rural areas, congregations often find it easy to join forces with nonprofits and government agencies to address pressing issues like child hunger or homelessness. Joining with others allows the congregation to focus on making specific contributions and receiving information about the changing situation. In some communities, congregations are welcome to collaborate with public schools to address challenges facing students and their families.

In other places, it takes much time for congregations to build trust beyond church walls, because of barriers like the us/them polarization in political debates and the documented misbehavior of religious leaders. The starting place in these communities might be listening carefully and offering a one-time service. If a church delivers on that promise, the neighbors might be open to another collaboration and eventually an ongoing relationship.

One map that has been disrupted for many churches is their system of Christian education. Some small groups within congregations have been vital sources of nurture and growth, while other groups in the same congregations have disbanded. Congregations are working to identify the conditions that contribute to the vitality of effective groups and how those conditions are nurtured.

Essentially, congregations are learning from their own experience to draw new maps to navigate this terrain. We know from looking at the stars that discipleship is important and that being in small groups contributes significantly to nurturing faith and holding one another accountable. Yet how do we encourage such practices in this season?

My father-in-law kept a leather-bound atlas next to his reading chair for decades. He traveled extensively in a motor home — including seven years as a full-time RVer in the first phase of his retirement. He loved to look at that atlas to locate any city mentioned in a conversation and to chart a journey. He did learn to use a GPS, but he never gave up that atlas.

For people like my father-in-law, the turn-by-turn directions provided by Google may be too confining. He needed the big picture. He needed to make his own choices.

Following the stars is much like that. You know the big picture, but you get to explore along the way, encountering roadblocks and seeking out detours. This is the work of leadership.

We don’t have to do it as solitary travelers. We can band together and share what we are learning. The broadest view of U.S. congregational life that I know is the one being taken by the EPIC study under the direction of Scott Thumma. He and his team are producing reports on surveys a couple of times each year. In the past 12 months, they have reported on outreach/social service ministries and religious education. Any of us can look at the reports and compare the results with our own experiences.

Each congregation in each community is in the process of determining which of the old maps are helpful and which no longer work very well.

No study can tell us what to do, but a good study can help us figure out where and how to experiment in our communities. For example, the religious education study indicates that many congregations are seeing much lower rates of volunteerism than before the pandemic. In early 2020, congregations reported that 40% of their members volunteered in some capacity within the ministries of the congregation. In early 2022, that number was 20%.

If you have evidence of lower volunteerism in your congregation’s ministries, you might want to account for that in your planning. The challenge of recruiting volunteers is not likely to be overcome by using a 5-year-old recruitment process. How do we adjust plans for now and experiment with ways to engage more members?

Even more than his beloved atlas, my father-in-law loved people. He and my mother-in-law joined camping associations. They served as RV park pastors. They gathered community wisdom on great local food or fun activities for the grandchildren. The atlas gave important context, but more significantly, it was a way to open the door to learn more. They learned from their neighbors.

Navigating by the stars is a journey of continuous learning. Confidence comes from knowing the creator of the universe, not from knowing the details of the journey.