Over the first four decades of my life I had the opportunity to participate in worship in around 30 different communities of faith (not counting those I joined on special occasions or for events other than their normal weekly services). Most of my adult life was spent serving congregations in a variety of lay and pastoral positions.
Over the past twelve months I have participated in worship in over 30 different communities of faith in Texas during one of their normal Sunday services. This experience has provided me with invaluable information that I would have benefited from in my earlier ministries.
Brian Ross, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministries at the Biblical Seminary of Fresno Pacific University, recently reflected on a similar experience. After more than fifteen years in parish ministry, Ross moved into an academic position. In the two years since that transition, he has worshiped in more than 40 congregations in California.
He shared 20 observations from those visits. I will share the three I agree with most strongly followed by the three I disagree with most strongly.
- Thriving churches, nearly universally, have a combination of fairly strong, gifted pastors with a high involvement of lay volunteers making things happen. Struggling churches, nearly universally, have a combination of multiple lay-committees (who make decisions) and hired staff who try to do all of the work.
- Being boring isn’t being holy and faithful. But providing a rock concert isn’t necessarily being spiritual.
- Being involved with practical needs in the local community (and making a big deal about it during worship) almost always win you friends.
- Churches with defined liturgies (formal order of service, response readings, etc.) are in serious trouble.
- I can typically read your political views about 5 minutes into a sermon. You’re cutting yourself off from many, many people. (On the right and left.)
- Too much video use can be silly. The complete absence of it- comes across as being out of touch.
Ross and I are at very different places on the theological continuum. For that reason and our similar paths to observing such large numbers of worship services so recently, I benefited from reviewing his list.
In fairness to Ross and my readers let me explain why I disagree with the few items I selected above.
- The vast majority of congregations I visited have “defined liturgies.” I noted no correlation between presence or absence of defined liturgy and current overall size, health, or apparent membership trends (growth, plateau, or decline). The limited research I have done in this area seems to suggest other factors are better indicators of congregational vitality.
- I prefer a pastor who is authentic, including about her or his general political bias. Most congregations are most effective in reaching people in a specific theological range and many of the actions good preaching calls for require behavior that is inherently political.
- Only a handful of the congregations I visited used video in worship. Those that did not use video ranged in size from around 50 to well over 1,000 with most being above average in size. In only two cases did I feel video would have fit well and would have been an obvious addition to most worship planners.
Thanks to Ross, I am now working on my own list of observations or lessons learned from my recent visits.
In the same spirit of learning from participating in congregations other than your own, I invite you to share something significant you gleaned from a visit or from all such visits.