I got an email from a faithful blog reader last week who mentioned I did a good job pointing out the shortcomings of the church, but that there wasn’t much there in terms of what a healthy, functional, faithful, effective congregation looks like. The fact is, it’s a lot easier to find fault with the church – especially in North America because we’re doing so well at being so ineffective. However, my wife reminds me regularly, “You need to move, touch, and inspire,” and the point is well taken. Because, there is a lot to celebrate in the church and there really are healthy churches out there who are doing great things in Jesus’ name. So, for those churches that aspire to greatness in the Kingdom of God, here are five marks off a of an effective congregation.
A Plethora of Invited Guests: There are a number of marks you’ll note in an effective congregation that you won’t find in most churches. One of the key marks is that the worship service (and most other events) will have a significant number of invited guests in attendance. The surprise isn’t that there are guests, it’s that the congregation is inviting their friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone else they can. It’s not just one or two folks who are doing the inviting … almost everyone is doing the inviting.
What makes these congregations so different from most North American congregations is that the members are excited about what’s happening in the congregation. In fact, the excitement is both palpable and contagious. It’s not that worship is out of this world, though it often is. It’s not that the pastor is a charismatic leader, though s/he may well be. It’s not even that there’s a DNA of inviting embedded within the congregation. The difference is that the participants expect great things to happen and they’re seldom disappointed. There’s an expectation that God is going to show up and lives are going to be transformed. With convictions like that, it’s hard not to invite others to join you in worship.
Congregational Care: Effective congregations genuinely like each other take care of themselves first and foremost. Now, that almost sounds antithetical to what we understand Christianity to be, but that’s because most churches misunderstand the One-Anothers. Jesus was clear that we were to love everybody, but he reminded his followers that just as there are three different “kinds” of love in Greek, there are three very different recipients of our love. He told us to love our enemies, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another as he loved us.
Notice that the most rigorous level is reserved for the One-Anothers. Even a cursory glance through a concordance shows that the One-Anothers of the New Testament designate our “brothers and sisters” of the faith. If you take the time to compile the list of the One-Another commands you’ll begin to understand what I mean by this second mark of an effective congregation.
Congregations that take the One-Anothers seriously don’t need pastoral care staff members … nor do they expect the pastor to visit them when they stub their toe. Effective congregations nearly swarm one another with care whenever there’s a need. In effective congregations, no one’s depending on the church office to keep them apprised of who’s in the hospital or who’s a shut in. Small group networks, Sunday school classes, women’s and men’s groups, etc. take personal responsibility for their members. And it’s not just illness or deaths that mobilize these groups. If a member is moving, the pickup trucks and strong backs show up almost without warning. If someone loses their job, the group digs deep to make sure the mortgage is met … and folks step up to help them in their job search.
But there’s more to this than just taking care of one another in times of crisis. Effective congregations have members who get along so well that they spend time together outside of sanctioned church events. They have coffee together, go to the movies together, and generally hang out together (but not to the exclusion of the unconnected … more about that later). If you want to see a biblical picture of how effective churches care for each other, take a look at Acts 2–4. Effective churches look like that.
And just in case you missed it in between the lines, effective churches don’t manage their conflict. They deal with it. They don’t tolerate bullies, terrorists, guerilla warfare, or unresolved issues. Because of this, the spiritual climate of the church is clear, calm, and centered.
Regular Influx of Spontaneous Guests: Earlier I mentioned that one of the marks of an effective church is the plethora of invited guests. These aren’t the only guests, though. Effective churches get a reputation in the community. For one, the aforementioned excited church members create a buzz virtually everywhere they go. But in addition, effective congregations do an excellent job of letting the community know it exists. Some of this is through mass marketing and word of mouth marketing, but more often the church’s involvement in a signature ministry gets them a widespread positive reputation in the community. This signature ministry isn’t necessarily an outreach mission, such as a food bank or homeless shelter. Often a signature ministry is simply a single ministry, such as children’s ministries or under thirty’s worship, that is so excellent the community takes notice.
There’s another reason that visitors just “show up” in effective churches. Because the congregation is so welcoming, these churches get a reputation of being a “safe” place to drop in and test the waters. That means that effective churches allow those guests who want to be anonymous to come and go unscathed by public identification or being assaulted by forced hand-holding. But it also means that even these “shy” guests get first class treatment through the congregation’s hospitality. If there’s a congregational greeting time, the members don’t engage in a contest based on how many palms they can press. Instead, they spend time intentionally getting to know those they don’t know, whether the “new” friend is a long term member or a first-time guest. There are literally dozens of other hospitality practices – from eschewing coded or religious gobbledygook to providing excellent signage and a sanitary, safe, and secure nursery.
Effective churches have a reputation that extends beyond its membership and draws visitors like recess draws school kids.
Spontaneous Congregational Ministry: One of the key marks of an effective congregation is the spontaneous launching of congregational ministries. These ministries may be programmatic in nature, but more often than not they are simply intentional responses to the needs of both the congregation and the community.
One example of spontaneous congregational ministry is the five guy Bible study group at one of our local coffee shops. They were overheard talking about a local family who had lost their home to a fire the day before. They’d discovered the family had lost everything and was moving into an apartment. One of the guys mentioned they should buy some food for the family. They all ponied up some cash and another guy suggested they call some of the church members to donate furniture items. Within ten minutes, these five guys at a coffee shop Bible study had mobilized not only themselves, but the whole congregation. The cool thing is, this local church not only encourages such action, they see this kind of thing happening on a near-daily basis.
Regular Adult Baptisms: Here’s the bottom line and THE key mark of an effective congregation. Adult baptisms. This is not a slam against those of you who are Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc. who do infant baptism. Infant baptism typically represents biological church growth. However, adult baptisms represent something altogether different. Adult baptisms represent conversion growth. In the West, one of the fastest growing populations is the “never churched” population. We’re in the third generation of a largely unchurched population: the Boomers quit church; Gen-X only went to church when grandma took them; and the Pre-Millennials have never been to church (of course this is a broad generalization, but the fact is, it’s generally true). And so, effective churches are engaged in real evangelism that is touching real lives and that results in adult baptisms.
If your church isn’t doing any adult baptisms, the reality is that you can probably take a look at your decadal attendance and membership figures, plot them, and speculate moderately accurately when you will no longer be a viable congregation.
So, there you are. The five marks of an effective congregation. Are there other marks? Sure. Lack of ongoing conflict, mission focused, decision making teams versus committees, and so on. But the fact is, if you have the five that are listed, you’re probably doing all the rest by default.