What Struggling Congregations Need to Renew Their Churches

Photo via Goran Bogicevic /

Photo via Goran Bogicevic /

I am in a lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.

It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.

It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”

I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.

Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.

Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.

That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.

Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.

An Unexpected Journey

Illustration of community holding hands, STILLFX /

Illustration of community holding hands, STILLFX /

When our church receives new members, we share a covenant that includes the commitment to “journey together.” Often, we realize this can mean ‘journeying’ into unwanted, dark, difficult, or surprising places with each other. We have stood with each other as loved ones pass away. We stand with each other in the difficult role of being children of aging parents, or parents of growing children. We bear witness to the power of hope when someone we love struggles with depression. We celebrate commitments made, successes honored, and loves found. The Christian faith, we realize, is rarely about solutions; it is about the authentic and real journey of life and a common trust that our God walks with us, no matter what.

For a variety of reasons, a former bishop in another denomination found us in the immediate aftermath of a horrible car accident that resulted in the death of an innocent and lovely woman in a nearby community.

Rather than becoming a setting to explore the details of this accident, our congregation became a lifeline for him during the months he awaited his fate and eventual conviction of second-degree reckless homicide. Week in and week out, he attended worship, sang with us, prayed with us, and sought spiritual solace with us. His presence was quiet but consistent. He didn’t ask for special attention, indeed didn’t want to make us uncomfortable with his presence. As a person of faith on his own difficult journey, he simply wanted to be in worship with a community.


Mumford and Sons: Eschatological Banjos

Mumford and Sons in New York on Feb. 6., Marc D Birnbach /

Mumford and Sons in New York on Feb. 6., Marc D Birnbach /

A couple of weeks ago I posted about Mumford and Sons. I suggested that the Wednesday concert was, for me, a festival of devotion. Friday's concert, however, was something else. It was an eschatological event. Not transcendent, though others have used that word to describe it, but immanent, apocalyptic, eschatological. There we were gathered all in one place, as the Bible story goes, and the place exploded. Cathleen said more than once that the Holy Spirit was present. I love it when shows differ from night to night. I love it when the audience brings something new. I also wonder how such a noticeable distinction at a concert can be a helpful reminder for all of us who plan liturgies.

My wife is an actress. She will do the same show five or six times a week for six to eight weeks. The same play. Every night. But what she will also say is that it is never the same play every night. Actually, she has said that if you do it right it should never be the same piece twice. There is no such thing as a repeat performance if one understands repetition is not exact duplication. 

Similarly, a live concert is not a track on a CD. One does not show up to a concert and press "play." No, it is a singular performative event. Even when, as with Mumford and Sons, the set list is similar and the choreography (yes, even Mumford and Sons have a couple of staged bits) is the same, the concerts still feeldifferent. Why? Well lots of reasons, but mostly because they are different.