National survey: Congregational 'success stories' are there to be found
Jan - Feb 2005
More than 70 congregations in a national study of mainline Protestant congregations have experienced renewal through commitment to classical Christian practices such as prayer, despite their denominations having lost millions of members over the past 40 years.
Diana Butler Bass, senior research fellow in church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, has found evidence of growth not just among evangelical congregations, but among more-liberal mainline churches that take traditional Christian spiritual practices seriously. She's gotten a grant to study them.
"I felt like this story wasn't being told," Bass said. "I am under no illusions as to how many problems mainline Protestantism has on an institutional and national level. But that is where the problem is. The signs of hope are for these individual congregations, and only insofar as these grassroots networks can pressure the national structure to change."
Dynamic mainline congregations do exist, fostered in part by creative spins on old spiritual practices.
For example, St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va., has developed an "urban abbey" with a quasi-monastic rule of life to help members develop regular patterns of prayer, Bible study, worship and service.
The Church of the Redeemer UCC, an open and affirming congregation in New Haven, Conn., has revived the old Puritan practice of requiring members to give public testimonies of faith. As a result, attendance has grown from 40 to 240.
"These people are really liberal, but they have to be able to testify to the experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives," Bass said. "They have a rule now—no Godless announcements. Any time you get up in front of the congregation, even if it's to talk about the Sunday School, you have to be able to link it to some element of the biblical story."
At Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pa., at meetings of the lay board that governs the church, elders do not vote "yea" or "nay." Instead they pray over each issue, then indicate whether they sense it is God's will for the congregation.
"They have turned all of their business meetings into spiritual formation groups," Bass said.
While the size of an average Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation has fallen to less than 150 members, Calvin's membership has doubled in recent years to 400.
"We are really trying to be a church that knows tradition and at the same time moves into the future," says the Rev. N. Graham Standish, pastor.