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Thinking Out Loud

What's Trending in Congregations?

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 21, 2015

CongregationsThere are a lot of folks today with a lot to say about the state of churches. Some of what gets said is, sadly, of the bloviating variety, an ecclesiastical version of the overblown rhetoric of certain political candidates and self-proclaimed expert punditry. But there are others in the churchly world whose perspectives are extremely valuable and are based on extensive, deep experience and careful, often minute, observations accumulated and analyzed over a long period of time. These folks are often pretty modest about the claims they make, even reticent. You may have to drag their insights out of them, they are so genuinely humble.

One such observer, who occupies a vantage point somewhere between the 35,000-feet aerial view and the on-the-ground imbedded pastor-reporter, is the Rev. Dr. Timothy Shapiro, President of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The Center is a “supporting organization” of both Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Christian Theological Seminary of Indianapolis. Louisville Seminary is proud to claim Tim as a two-time alum of our school (MDiv ’86 and DMin ’00). In a recent meeting of the Center’s board of directors Tim’s report laid out seven “emerging congregational trends” that he has been observing over the past couple of years. Most of Tim’s observations are of congregations in Indiana.*

Tim’s observations, while modest in their claims, are simply fascinating, frequently contrary-to-ordinary conventional wisdom, and highly suggestive for church leadership and for theological education.

With his permission, I will share them with you:

Emerging Congregational Trends

"1. Evangelical non-denominational congregations are less isolated from historic practices of Christianity than they were just ten years ago. This is particularly true regarding forms of prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

"2. Some congregations that have culturally been characterized as mainline liberal have become more explicit about speaking about God in non-Trinitarian terms. The story of Jesus is still honored. Historic formulas about the person of Jesus Christ are not so much challenged as folded carefully and put away for the season.

"3. Congregations are actively externally focused. Local mission is replaced with community engagement. There is less distinction between helping members live faithful lives and relating to community members who are not members. Even in congregations that have membership rolls, who is and who isn’t a member is less important.

"4. For leaders in congregations, approaching every congregational challenge through a collaborative leadership style is experienced as limiting. Leaders who have the spiritual and emotional range to apply situational leadership modes are experiencing effectiveness.**

"5. For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule in Indiana congregations. Sometimes the exception is the congregation with worshipers the average age of twenty-two. Sometimes the exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.

"6. In many areas, more congregations are opening than closing. However, very small congregations are experiencing prolonged hospice stays.

"7. Congregations that view the resource base as an open system often are the ones that find deeply spiritual solutions to their difficult challenges. By an open system resource base, I mean resources that are not exclusively from the ecclesial world."

The Indianapolis Center for Congregations reflects a philosophy which another staff member, Sue Weber, Evaluation Project Coordinator at the Center, put into words beautifully. “We do not see the congregation as a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be embraced.”

I’d like to leave Tim’s observations with you without any additional comment. They make great fodder for further reflection. And they remind us of the extraordinary value of those people who serve, resource and provide care in a wide variety of congregations. They take careful notes on what they observe and allow those observations to be tested against what they see in other communities.

May their tribe increase!

*According to the Indianapolis Center for Congregation’s 2014 Annual Report, the Center held 131 educational events and meetings last year attended by 1,696 lay and ordained congregational leaders representing 695 congregations from eighty-two faith groups or denominations. They are on track to serve even more congregations this year. The Center is non-sectarian, thus it resources churches across the theological spectrum as well as some non-Christian congregations. The Center is funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

**Those who would like to read more about “situational leadership” may want to look at last year’s “Leadership Notebook” blog, where this subject was taken up in some detail and resources were shared.

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