A vital congregation changes hearts and lives

Your vital congregation journey puts you on a route that is a superhighway from the perspectives of both contemporary organizational theory and Scripture.

The three most significant levers for influencing a church understood as a system are:

  1. Influencing the mindset of the individuals making up the system,
  2. Shaping the vision for the system as a whole (the congregation), and
  3. Fostering self-organizing within the system.

The first of these three is the most influential and is also foundational to the other two. If the first occurs, it will shape authentic development of the next two. Changing the mindset of people means changing the paradigm that is the foundation for their actions. Influencing their mindset is the most direct and effective agency of change in a community of people. The vitality of a congregation grows as the mindset of its members is influenced toward new values, assumptions and beliefs regarding living as a child of God.

Changing one’s mindset, or paradigm, sounds a lot like the biblical call for changing hearts and lives. The discourse of John the Baptizer and Jesus in the Gospels, and the apostles in the book of Acts, often includes the word repent. While to some people this word may convey a one-time, possibly mostly emotional, action, it really calls for a complete change of life. The Greek word is metanoia, which literally means, “change directions, turn around.” No one English word conveys this meaning well, and the Common English Bible translators have chosen to use for this one word, a phrase: “change your hearts and lives.” The phrase is inclusive of both a new inner state of being and an outward manner of living. To repent is a big deal. It is foundational to what the New Testament teaches. The message was not just to repent of one behavior, or a few specific actions, but to take on a new life. The full gospel message is more apparent when one realizes that the call to “change your hearts and lives” is paired with the announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand.

We ought not misinterpret the passage to say that people can – by themselves, or in collaboration with others – change their hearts and lives on their own. Note that in Matthew both John the Baptizer (3:2) and Jesus (4:17) say: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of Heaven!” To change is to open oneself to the kingdom from which comes the power to change. This is the good news (the gospel) at the heart of the New Testament. It portrays people being transformed by the power of God. The message is not just about God’s love, but about the power to appropriate this love.

Church leaders face the question of how to help their people appropriate this power for change. In essence: How do you become a vital congregation — a community of people engaged in the ongoing process of developing the mindset of Christ? How does one influence the mindset of the individuals? How does one help people seeking to change their hearts and lives?

An important beginning for appropriating this power is recognizing the community aspect of the church. The gospel message is not just for individuals as individuals, but for individuals in community with other followers of Jesus. The foundation for this community is individuals seeking to help each other to change their hearts and minds to conform to the image of Christ. The community should welcome all who wish to follow Jesus and join in mutually assisting each other to change their hearts and minds. They help each other in this collaborative process of being transformed. They will be a community that is welcoming of all and mutually transforming.

While changing hearts and lives is the work of the Holy Spirit, congregations can play a role by creating contexts in which members can collaborate as they seek to enhance their spiritual lives. This endeavor should be pursued within all the various ministry contexts of a church, such as its education and service ministries.

A very specific example, group spiritual direction, will be described here; it has substantial potential for moving people toward a changed mindset — a changed heart and life. Furthermore, insights derived from this approach then can be adapted and applied to our discussion of other congregational ministries. There are many routes to this personal transformation and there are some principles underlying these multiple avenues.

Group spiritual direction

In spiritual direction, a Christian seeks out an individual or group who will walk alongside them as they examine and seek to enhance their relationship with God. The person accompanying this journey (often called a spiritual director) listens and may ask questions, but does not give advice or offer instruction. Historically common in Roman Catholic traditions, it increasingly has appeared in Protestant circles in the last couple generations. The approach attends to one’s prayer practice and helps one see God’s role in the many dimensions of life. It deals with a person’s mindset (i.e., values, attitudes and beliefs) and attempts to open one’s heart and mind to change.

In contemporary church culture, spiritual direction is commonly thought of as an individual pursuit, but historically it more often has been a group endeavor, such as with the groups established by John Wesley in the early years of the Methodist movement in England. Contemporary writers on spiritual direction describe ways it can be conducted in a group setting (for more, see Rose Mary Dougherty’s book “Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment”). Group spiritual direction can be practiced within a congregation and is a possible means of acquiring an in-depth focus on personal spiritual reality. Its role in discernment can lead to personal change. The person in this discernment process is looking within the self, however, rather than looking to others for insight.

An intentional faith sharing occurs in this process, and part of group spiritual direction becomes seeing how God is working in the lives of others. Silence and prayer are valued components. It is not hurried. The entire endeavor is about prayer and looking at our life choices in light of our relationship with God. Openness with one’s spiritual director provides for accountability, and this transparency enhances humility and movement toward change in one’s heart and life. Prayer is at the heart of the process and puts the focus on our personal responsibility for our relationship to God.

Group spiritual direction typically is pursued with three to five people who meet periodically over a long period of time and truly get to know each other. When they gather, the group focuses on one individual for an extended time as this person gives an account of what is happening in their life. The others listen and there may be extended periods of silence. The group is there to listen to God together. The listeners are not there to give advice or fix problems. They may ask helpful questions, however, such as: What is God saying to you about this? What does this say to you about God? In what way would you like God to be with you in this? What do you really want, and do you feel free to tell God that? What is God teaching you? What do you want God to do for you?

Experienced practitioners of this process suggest it be done in a group that meets for two or three hours. The focus is on one person at a time with a sequence such as the following for each person: silence for a few minutes; sharing by this person for 10-15 minutes; a few more minutes of silence; a response time by the others in the group; and some more silence. The process then is repeated with the next person. The process maintains its focus on the individual at hand and the purpose of the endeavor.

A process of this nature requires commitments such as: an honest relationship with God; wholehearted participation; and opening one’s personal journey to the consideration of others. Experienced leaders of this process suggest some form of participant screening may be helpful. In other words, this form of group spiritual direction is not for everyone and it is not reasonable to think of it as an all-inclusive, congregation-wide program in a church setting. But it can provide an archetype and form a training ground for people who wish to incorporate some of its principles into other aspects of a church’s ministry. Transparency and prayerful reflection resulting in changes in hearts and lives can be encouraged within many church ministries.

Small groups

What are other contexts in which such self-disclosure, prayerfulness and openness to change can be fostered? What conditions can lead to a new mindset — to changed hearts and minds? What settings would naturally lead to the openness and self-disclosure at the heart of the spiritual direction process? There are multiple such settings within the typical congregation, yet their potential commonly is not realized to the extent desired.

Steps that can be taken to develop the desired climate in small groups, for example, begin with establishing an understanding of the purpose of a given group. Changing the orientation of an established group may not be easy, but when a new group is formed it may be easier to establish and maintain a desired focus with a written covenant that is explicit about a group’s purpose and mutual agreements as to how they will operate. This step is related, of course, to how members are recruited and selected for a group. Recruitment should be based on an explicit agenda that includes fostering an environment of repentance (i.e., the changing of hearts and minds).

A well-prepared group facilitator is a great help for maintaining this orientation. A group leader who is committed to the purpose at hand and has good facilitation skills can take people to a place the typical group is unlikely to go.

The specific preparation of leaders for this role is important. A good starting point is participation in a formal spiritual direction group. Time spent in such participation provides both the desired experience and a context for learning appropriate facilitation skills. In the case of a ministry with several such group facilitators, an opportunity for them to meet occasionally to debrief and share experiences is valuable.

Spiritual disciplines

The teaching ministry (including sermons) of a church can address convictions that are directly tied to one’s mindset. Addressing false narratives that should be eliminated and true narratives that should be enhanced addresses one’s very being. False narratives (such as: God’s love is conditional upon our behavior; we can work our way to God) are corrosive and should be pulled out of our mindset. Similarly, there are true narratives that need attention to root them more deeply in our lives (such as: we are a new creation in Christ; we are defined not by our brokenness but by Christ who dwells in us). Fostering authentic beliefs is part of developing a mindset that is a foundation for a changed heart and life.

We need to internalize core beliefs. Engaging in an ongoing set of intentional spiritual practices (often called spiritual disciplines) is a long-standing way of shaping our hearts and lives. Among these practices are ones of abstinence such as fasting, spending time in solitude or silence, frugality or sacrifice, and ones of engagement such as prayer, worship, service, confession or fellowship. (Numerous books on this topic by authors such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster are available, or for a specific smaller book, see Marjorie Thompson’s “Soul Feast.”) The purpose of these practices emphatically is not to gain favor in God’s eyes. The purpose is to open our lives to God’s access, so God can shape us. Sermons and teaching are excellent settings for advancing this agenda.

Service activities

While most church service projects tend to focus on the people being served, much of their potential for changing hearts and lives is with the people serving. Engaging in volunteer service endeavors (such as serving meals at a local soup kitchen, serving as mentor in a local school mentoring program, delivering for Meals on Wheels or serving on a local task force for those experiencing homelessness) impacts the person serving — an impact that can be enhanced through prayerful reflection and discernment in company with others. Done in collaboration with a fellow disciple, one has an opportunity to talk about the significance of the experience and its connection to how the Spirit is shaping one’s heart and life. Furthermore, this sharing may lead to reaching beyond the conventional to unique actions the Spirit is calling one to. An inner state of being (“hearts”) and outward manner of living (“lives”) are changed.

There are many ways those engaged in serving others can highlight the spiritual dimension. For example, two or more people may choose to walk together through a neighborhood for which they have a prayerful concern. As they walk, they consider what they are experiencing, discuss it and pray about it. It is a matter of being aware of their world and including God in this awareness. They are opening themselves to the world as seen from God’s perspective, and to what place God has for them in this setting. It becomes a context for God to change one’s heart and life.

The pastor

We now can reconsider the pastor who is seeking to foster a vital congregation. A common starting point for such a pastor is with what some call “the vision thing” — developing a collective sense of purpose and direction for the congregation. Here is where many pastors shine. This is the province of mission statements and action plans. While these matters certainly are important, it is well to hark back to the notion of leverage points for influencing a congregational system. As noted earlier, developing vision is an important item, but the most influential leverage point is the mindset of the individuals making up the system, which is the topic we have been addressing. Thus, our focus is how the pastor can foster individuals’ collaborative pursuit of a change in heart and life.

This form of leadership demands engagement at a personal level — possibly in contrast to the notion of “pastor as CEO.” It calls for personal engagement in the activities mentioned above, and direct engagement with other congregational leaders who interact with parishioners. While these ideas can be pursued in many ways, it is important to engage the church’s session. The process of helping congregants change their hearts and minds can be explored by this leadership body and they can consider various methods to encourage it within the congregation. Furthermore, the pastor can help this deliberative leadership group pursue among themselves some of these collaborative initiatives for changing their own mindsets.

This is a form of pastoral leadership that, in addition to being a bit top-down in developing vision and plans, is primarily one of fostering change from the bottom up. It is being a pastor in the fullest sense of the word.

Ronald D. Anderson is professor of education emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder and recently retired executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Pueblo. This article is related to his latest book, “Loosing Control: Becoming a Pastor/Leader with Influence.” He can be reached at