Now What Are We Going to Do?
Stop Hate Response Continues

Finding a Religious Identity

I was reading an Alban Weekly article on the recent Pew Center survey of religion in American life. The article focuses on all the flux and lack of denominational identity. It concludes with:

What do all these statistics mean for those who lead American congregations? Interestingly, the survey does not focus on congregations at all. Yet the local churches, synagogues, and temples of the land are the places where all this switching, fluidity, and vagueness manifest themselves week after week. In every worship service, board meeting, Sunday school class, social event, and rite of passage, all the churn that the Landscape Survey points to “out there” in the national environment is going on “in here”—in the lives of individual members and the small faith communities they belong to. Once upon a time religious leaders represented very distinct religious communities that were clearly differentiated from the ones down the street or across town. Now our leaders work in a sea of religious vagueness and search for ways to help people surrounded by a growing tide of “nothing in particular” find something in particular to build a life upon. Stay tuned.

I was wondering if the congregation's with distinct and clear identities and missions that distinguish themselves would fare best? Your thoughts?


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Mike Mitchell

To help you formulate a personal response to the question of how like other congregations you should be, I recommend to you Dean Kelly's classic "Why Conservative Churches are Growing." In it, he says the purpose of a church is to create a sense of shared understanding for its members. ... this stream of shared experience brings to members a system of explanations, a sacred cosmos, which makes life understandable to them …strong organizations tend to increase in membership and weak ones to diminish."

Kelly says that organizations "run down." If they don't take time to refresh themselves from time to time, they get lazy about telling "the old, old story" and recounting the shared experiences. They stop "testimony time" and the new people and the children don't develop the same commitment to the ideals of the organization. With each generation, a little vitality leaks away.

Kelly quotes Franklin Littell's "The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism" to say that not only do some churches continue to "halve the half" until only a sliver of meaning is left, but to pay the bills they accept marginal members ("baptized pagans") who further dilute the shared understanding.

What I take from Kelly's excellent book is for a congregation to remain vibrant in its community, it must comtinually involve its members in shared work of the congregation, to immerse the leaders in service. The pastor's job is to give witness to the activities of the congregation and to continue to remind them why they exist. To fail at this task is to invite meaninglessness and organizational dissolution.



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