Characteristics of Renewing Congregations


Many, if not most, of our congregations sense that their survival is threatened and uncertain. This sensation is manifest in a variety of ways; desire for a “better pastor,” frustration with church programs (I’m just not being fed), and criticism of others in the congregation for not pulling their share of the load (20% of us are doing 80% of the work!). All together it adds up to an experience of church that can be demoralizing.

In this environment of fear and frustration church leaders swing back and forth between extended periods of depression and short bursts of renewed hope.

In twenty-eight years of service as a pastor to local congregations, and over forty as an active United Methodist church person, I have experienced this personally and with the congregations I have been part of. Very early in my ministry I became obsessed with discovering congregations that broke through this cycle of hope and depression to become vitally alive and engaged with joy in what they knew to be a lively partnership with God in mission to the world. With over twenty years of studying turn around congregations I believe I have discovered four key characteristics that are present in turn-around churches.

These four characteristics were certainly present at the beginning of renewal for the two congregations I had the privilege of serving during their transformation from struggling to thriving. I also saw these characteristics in the renewing congregations I studied. These characteristics were far more significant than whether a congregation was theologically conservative or progressive, small or large, urban or rural, or young or old.

  1. Most people in the congregation are comfortable talking about what Jesus means to them personally. This is not done only with a small group of long-time church friends, but is relatively easy for them with new people in the church and friends and family outside the church. People are serious about actually trying to follow Jesus.
  2. Most people in the congregation feel (and often talk about it with each other) that their church is not yet what God intends for it to be. They probably disagree about what should be done about that, but they share the feeling. People are serious in their desire that their church be fruitful.
  3. There is a high-commitment and hopeful core of folks (10 or 15) who are willing to covenant together (with the pastor) to do whatever is necessary and within their power to help their church become what God is calling it to be. A significant part of their commitment is the admission that they do not already know what that is that God wants of their church, nor how to do it (we call that humility!). This allows them to let go of their pre-conceived notions and old ideas about what the church needs to be doing. Church leaders are teachable.
  4. This core leadership team is able to bring the congregation to a crisis decision that symbolizes in a powerful way that they are willing to let go of what worked in the past in order to embrace the promise of God's mission in their future. This can take a number of forms. Here are some that I have experienced in congregations in our conference:
    1. Congregational vote to sell their current building a move to another location (which, ironically, they ended up not doing, but their willingness to do so transformed their commitment to mission).
    2. Congregational abandonment of their long-held identity as "a former EUB church" and embrace of becoming The United Methodist Church in their mission field.
    3. Congregational vote to dramatically remodel their worship space to allow for much greater flexibility, projection, theater lighting, allow coffee in the space, etc.
    4. Congregational vote to use carefully accumulated assets to return to a full-time ministry with the "right" kind of pastoral leadership AND willingness to go fifteen months without any pastor at all while the conference recruited the right kind of pastoral leadership. (They actually began to grow during the time they had no pastor!)

The final characteristic, a decision to abandon a deeply held past in order to claim a yet-to-be-seen future, is usually a very conflicted moment in the life of a slow-decline congregation. Many people in the congregation will experience it as a disaster, not a promise. In congregations that experience renewal, this same challenging moment is always looked back on as “the moment we decided to really be the church God intended us to be.” Like Jesus sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism and Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness following the Exodus, these are purifying moments when a congregation finally abandons its own desires in search of God’s intentions.

If your congregation is struggling, you can do no better than to begin to develop these four characteristics. Talk with one another about your personal experience of Jesus in you life. Share your frustration with, and your hopes for, your congregation with one another. Identify the small group of people who are passionately committed to give themselves to the renewal of the congregation and empower them to begin working toward that outcome. And through it all begin to ask, “What is it we are clinging to that is keeping us looking back to a nostalgic wish for past glory and keeping us from looking forward into the journey God is calling us to undertake?”

Steve Ross
Rev. Steve Ross is the Director of the Oregon-Idaho Conference Vital Church Project. Previously he served as Assistant to the Bishop for the Oregon Trail District.