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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Creating a New Image for Our Congregations

I confess that I’m not much of a professional sports fan. However, I do watch the Super Bowl mainly to socialize with friends and to watch the commercials and the halftime show. Did you notice how different the commercials were this year? Many of them featured cute animals, positive self-esteem, values, relationships and sensitive dads. Given all of the scandals in the NFL this past year I wondered if we were seeing the softer side of the NFL. It was astonishing.

Of course, I began to wonder about congregations. If the NFL is trying hard to change its image, can we do the same in our traditional, organized, religious institutions? Several years ago George Barna conducted a survey that measured the attitudes of young adults ages 16-29 when they heard the word “Christian.” A high percentage of these young adults used words such as boring, hypocritical, judgmental, too political and out of touch with reality. If this is still true, then we have a lot of work to do to change our image.

As I was driving to church the morning of Super Bowl Sunday I was listening to a podcast that I recently recorded with three 21 year olds. I asked them about their beliefs and practices, their spiritual journeys and what advice they might have for mainline congregations who so desperately want to reach their generation. All three of these young adults were confirmed in mainline churches, left their churches during high school but had defining spiritual experiences in college that have influenced their current beliefs and practices. Two of them have completely left organized religion and the third is a young Evangelical attending a new mega-church. The advice they had for congregations was the same: be patient, accept us for who we are, don’t try and force something on us, be a healthy community that encourages vulnerability and connection and, give us the space to explore our own spiritual journeys. Here is the link to that section of the podcast.

Ultimately, changing our image isn’t about new signage, a better website, a different ad in the local newspaper or a new mission statement and logo. I think it all comes down to us as individuals and to the health of our congregations. Here are some practices that I believe we need to reclaim:

  • Nurturing our own souls. As clergy and laity it is critical to take the time we need to spiritually grow and to tend to the state of our own soul. It’s as easy as being grateful for each and every day.
  • Sharing what we believe. This is good ole fashioned evangelism. No matter where you are on the theological continuum from liberal to conservative we all need to be able to talk about the difference that our beliefs and practices have made in our lives. And, if what you are doing has become a matter of habit or something you do out of guilt, it’s time for a good self-inventory and some change.
  • Sharing how God is at work in our faith communities and the difference that has made in our own lives. I recently attended worship in one of my churches on the district. This was a church that has gone through many painful struggles. They are back on track now and the feeling in worship was electric. I found myself crying through much of the service. They are growing again. Those who hung in there through the tough times have been renewed in their faith and are telling all of their friends and relatives the story of their healing as a church. It was so powerful to see the Spirit at work in their faith community.
  • Engaging in acts that heal a broken world. Finally, is your congregation making a difference in the world? Are your members focused on the mission or focused on being part of a social club and on their individual wants and preferences? A congregation can’t be healthy if it’s not fulfilling its mission. We can no longer afford to fixate on what’s petty and mundane.

I know that on one level all of this sounds trite. It’s all been said before in one way or another. Fortunately, many of our congregations have made the necessary changes and are reaching new people but just as many of our congregations are still lost and the spiritual hunger in our communities has never been greater. If the NFL can work on changing its image, so can we.

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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