reviewed by G. Wilson Gunn Jr.
A friend of mine and I were sailing across the Pamlico Sound one night on a close haul in a gentle breeze. My friend came up to take the next watch while I went below. Suddenly I felt the wind grip the sails and the hull roll over about 10 degrees. We skimmed along more quickly than we had under my watch. The Loran (navigation aid) indicated our course was north when we needed to be going west. I alerted my friend that he was off course. “But,” my friend noted, “we’re going a lot faster this way.”
In A Field Guide to U.S.Congregations: 2nd Edition, Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce provide essential navigational aid to churches in uncertain waters. They bring us data with which we might assess our current context and, from there, chart the path ahead.
Especially useful in this 2008 study are the comparisons available from the 2001 study, which included many of the same congregations. Again (as in the 2001 study) they identify ten strengths they find common in growing congregations. And comparing these 2008 scores with the 2001 scores we can discern trends:
1. An 8% (43%-35%) decrease in persons who experience much growth in their faith through participation in the activities of the congregation. Is this because fewer people are engaged in these activities? Or is it that these persons are engaged but do not find growth in that participation?
2. A 10% decrease in the number of church goers who invited someone else to church in the last year. I would be interested in the correlation of the responses to this question with several others.
3. A 7% increase in frustration in worship (from 73% who “rarely” experience it in 2001 to 66% “rarely” experiencing it in 2007)
4. A 5% increase in the number of people reporting that they find that “worship helps them in their daily life” (56% to 61%)
The survey is available to congregations so they might see how they fare with the ten strengths and compare themselves to the denominational norm and also the “All Congregations” norm. With this sense of their uniqueness the leaders of a congregation can then accentuate their strengths and/or attend to their weaker points. The data do not discern the will of God, but they do define a starting point for a congregation.
Anytime we propose to move from point “A” to point “B,” we need some means to identify where point “A” and point “B” are, and the means to measure our progress, regress, or direction in between. Without this measurement we will end up going north in favorable winds when we really need to go west and into the wind.
I would judge the book a “must purchase” by any congregation pursuing intentional transformation.
G. Wilson Gunn Jr. is the general presbyter of National Capital Presbytery, Washington, D.C.