Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Can We Thrive in the Changing Religious Landscape? First of a Series
December 18, 2012, 8:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m posting a series of reflections and summaries of others’ research on the changing landscape in which congregations conduct our ministries.  Alban Institute writer Carol Howard Merritt, born in the 1970s and a progressive Presbyterian minister, writes that the earth has shifted in the past several decades.  Indeed, we function as churches amid shifting currents as well as torrents of change.

This is for a paper I’ll present to my UU clergy study group and for an independent-study course at Pacific School of Religion, a progressive inter-denominational seminary where I am pursuing a Doctor of Ministry.  Your comments and questions are welcome along the way!

My congregation has 370 adult members and about 100 youth and children registered in Religious Education.  In addition, there are dozens of pledging friends who are not official members.  We always have newcomers and new but regular visitors, and we have some long-term “guests.”

On Sunday we have as many as 250 attending.  This figure — Sunday attendance — is the one that church consultants and social scientists consider when writing about size differences among congregations and looking at dynamics of decline in the moderate Main Line of Protestantism.

However, long time members can focus on the total-membership number–and its decline over the decades, and conclude, “Something is wrong!  We’re not doing what we should be doing!”  Some might say:  “What we need is to do… again, to have… again, to find… again.”

Oh, really?  One might reply.  What are the data behind that conclusion?  What about the larger trends, the driving forces that affect our work?  How can we take those into account, and how might we respond to them, take advantage of them? 

How might we help those people who are dealing with such forces?

These driving forces include changes in the lives of our “customers,” changes in our communities, changes in the competition (not merely other congregations, but all things that compete for the time, loyalty, support and involvement of our constituencies).  How has the regulatory environment changed?  For example, to commence on bold plans for building expansions and improvements (recently approved unanimously by the congregation and funded with capital campaign donations), we have to spend several months and lots of money for studies, surveys and county use permits.  We won’t even break ground for a year.  But when we built our current structures in the early 1960s, we didn’t get a use permit, or need one.

Driving forces affecting our ministries also include those in the larger social context:  technological, economic, environmental, and political changes.  All of these forces have changed our world and our work.

The driving forces may be certain to continue or accelerate, or they may change direction.  Whether we can be certain of all these trends for the next decade or more, we should at least get a grasp of them now.

This is the result and the purpose of the 2009 study called Faith Formation 2020.  In subsequent posts I will summarize the summary of this research given by LifelongFaith Associates):  Thirteen Trends and Forces Affecting the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World.  I’ll start with the most interesting ones, which means I will take them out of order.  I will also reflect on dynamics I see among congregations and other organizations, and will touch on recent books.  Your questions will help me!






2 Comments so far
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Sounds interesting. I have often wondered how an inter-denominational seminary works. Is it assumed at the doctorate level that you are all steeped in your own denomination and therefore study what all denominations have in common? What are some of your classes about? If it is all independent study, what do you do as a group?

Comment by Lauren Davis-Todd

What ideas, if any, do you include from the success of The Church of the Larger Faith as an online congregation? It seems to me we may not be reaching out to those at home who don’t want to be at a brick and mortar location right now but still desire to belong to a group of like minded people. Having joined UUSS in 1989 and left for awhile then returned I think a lot about how many people enter, stay for awhile, and leave but might continue to refer to themselves as UUs in some manner. I believe it is possible for UUSS to do both brick and mortar and online with little effort or cost. If we don’t the future cost may be much higher.

Comment by Bruce Moulton

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