The latest research from the ongoing, multi-year, Hartford Institute study on American congregational life (FACT, 2015) confirms what most people involved in the life of a church already know. Most American congregations find themselves in a challenging situation: continued declines in Sunday worship attendance, declining revenue from giving, fewer growing congregations, a lack of spiritual vitality, and a drop in the number of congregations with full-time clergy, just to name a few of the bad-news findings. The good news is that the challenges facing congregations often drive them to action. The question is, “what action?”

Congregations often feel stumped by what’s happening and unsure what to do in order to address what seems like a complex aggregation of challenges. When faced with so many issues at once–money, facilities, attendance, engagement, volunteerism, etc., the tendency is often to look for a big, complex, high-level “solution.” These can take many forms, but may include replacing the pastoral staff, structural reorganization, changing worship times or format or style, instituting new programs and ministries, renovating facilities, or even changing the physical location of the church. While in some individual cases, one or many of these actions might be helpful, they can also easily fail to have the hoped-for impact. Why?

In many cases, what is needed is not so much a single, complex, high-level action plan, as a deep, honest look in the mirror. Maybe what’s needed is not so much answering the “what should we do” question, but instead answering the questions of “why and how we do what we do.” Many congregations think they are “warm and friendly,” but they really aren’t. Many think they don’t need to demonstrate overt hospitality to people they don’t know, but they do. Many assume the congregation will thrive if they have a great staff do “do” the ministry, but it won’t. People still come to congregations needing the same things they have always needed–love and relationship–with God and with God’s people. And how God’s people act makes all the difference in whether or not they experience these things.

For congregations with long histories, it’s easy to lose track of the congregation’s deeper mission and vision. Living in the shadow of the institutional church (even a small one), it’s easy to forget how important it is to simply be the people of God–kind, loving, welcoming, nurturing, and forgiving. The institutional church was built upon these deeply valued, personal and interpersonal qualities, and if a congregation wants to thrive again, reclaiming these qualities is a great starting point.


Roozen, D. A. (2016). FACT 2015 Thriving & Surviving – American-Congregations-2015.pdf. Retrieved February 3, 2017, from

Written by Rev. Christopher R. Gambill, Ph.D.