People have different involvement levels in congregations. As a result they experience the same community in different ways. Without getting over simplistic I think we can sort folks by their involvement level: 1. The core leaders (or insiders), 2. Active participants and 3. Those on the periphery (or outsiders). Each group has different challenges as well as opportunities. All are loved and cherished in the promises of God. All are people who Jesus loves.
1. Core leaders (insiders)
These are the folks that make most things happen. They have the most buy-in when it comes to the vision and activities, and make the most contributions of effort and resources. They know what is happening (or not) and what the goals are (or not) of the congregation. Having this group active on committees and the council/board leadership is a high-value; not only to them but also the identity of the congregation itself. Even when they are not in these formal roles of leadership, these folks are often consulted for input by other leaders.
Challenges: The greatest challenge of this group is to become a “member only” group or closed system. When the church only raises up the same leaders and defers only to them the community cannot grow. Sometimes there is reluctance to hand-over leadership to others, train new people or to welcome new ideas even though the growth and vitality of the congregation is a declared priority. The result can be conflict.
Opportunities: This group knows how to do things and has been relatively effective over time. If this group can utilize its expertise and share its capital of authority with new leaders, there’s a huge potential to harness and encourage greater participation.
2. Active participants
This is a middle group of people who form the base population in the congregation. They attend worship with varying degrees of regularity. They are involved in one or two church activities or groups. They enjoy the community aspect of church and look forward to being there. They might invite a friend if encouraged to do so. Depending on the temperament of the congregation, they may feel really good about it, or burdened by it. This is their church and they hope to stick with it.
Challenges: Whether they realize it or not, this group is trying to decide if they want to be more or less active in the life of their congregation. They want to apply faith in their everyday lives but sometimes don’t make the connections. Sometimes “going to church” is enough, and sometimes the distractions of everything else going on in life can feel overwhelming. They see the value in the community life of the congregation, but they’re also looking for practical, hands-on ways to make a difference. Without those opportunities they may slip quietly into the more peripheral group.
Opportunities: This group may feel busy and overwhelmed but there’s also a lot of energy to be harnessed and encouraged from them. They could use mentoring from more of the core leaders, and an invitation to participate into what appears from their perspective to be closed-systems. Finding practical ways to put mission into practice, and faith into their everyday experience will help them not only grow as individuals but make the overall congregation a much more vibrant community.
3. The Periphery (outsiders)
This is the group most churches (if they are honest) don’t know what to do with or how to respond to their participation level. The range of that participation is varied. Some may only participate in worship at Christmas and/or Easter, some may participate more frequently but aren’t part of the fabric of community life, some may not even participate at all. Stretching the group further it may also include non-church members in the neighborhood, or other potential partners to collaborate with on projects.
Challenges: There is a strong likelihood that varied factions in this group (if they even could be called a “group”) are quite comfortable with their current relationship with the church – even if it is indifferent or antagonistic. The question becomes how will the congregation connect with them, or will they be ignored?
Opportunities: The church as a whole has the most to learn from this group, by simply meeting with them, talking with them and building relationships together. Maybe they might become part of the community of a congregation more intentionally, but that should not be the congregation’s primary target. (People are pretty good at realizing they are the subject of marketing strategies.) Instead, the goal in interacting and pursuing relationships with those who are not actively involved at church is to get a pulse on the community – what is important to them, and why? What things are they involved in that provide meaning, purpose and commitment? Where have we missed the mark in connecting with them in the past, and what could we do better? If we could learn these things, the church can look outside itself with fresh eyes.
Summing it up: Every community has varying degrees of participation. As the church we are all part of the body of Christ. In assessing ourselves and our faith community we can do so without judgment towards one another by seeking to better understand ourselves, and trying to make our community stronger, healthier and more vibrant. In the midst of our discernment and planning, remember that the church is first and foremost centered not on us, but on the God who calls us to faith, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Which of these three groups sounds the most like you? Where would you like to be?
What is missing in these three groupings? Add a category that I missed or overlooked.
What do you think each of these groups can learn from each other?
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5)