In its request for proposals to build this initiative, Lilly Endowment Inc. noted that although pastors, religious leaders and consultants name several factors that contribute to the health and vitality of local churches, many agree that thriving congregations share three characteristics.
Lilly Endowment goes on to describe that thriving congregations:
1. Recognize their changing social and cultural contexts
Thriving congregations exhibit a nuanced understanding of the characteristics, interests, history and challenges of their communities and neighborhoods. These congregations attend closely to demographic and social changes in their communities, and they understand the particular qualities that make their communities both what they are and what they are becoming. As active participants in the community, the members of the congregation build face-to-face relationships with people in their neighborhoods and understand well the ways they live, play, work and gather. Through these close connections with their communities, thriving congregations are able to listen to the needs and interests of people in their local and regional contexts and develop ministries that are highly relational and relevant for those they seek to reach. These ministries are created by individuals and groups in the congregation and help the members of the congregation respond to specific changes in their congregation’s community as well as to changes in the neighborhoods and regions the congregation seeks to serve.
2. Exhibit clarity of values and mission
Thriving congregations have a striking clarity about their values and mission. Drawing on their theological and ecclesial traditions, they have developed a strong sense of identity and are able to articulate “why” they are called to love God and serve those in their congregations, neighborhoods, regions and across the globe. This clarity enables a thriving congregation to identify specific areas of interest and then align its ministries and activities around those priorities. Some of the ministries created by thriving congregations may concentrate on strengthening the inner life of a congregation while others may focus on reaching out and serving others. Moreover, members of thriving congregations are not merely concerned with the roles and functions of sustaining a church and its programs but are focused instead on a vision of abundant life that connects them to God, one another and the world. While members are recipients of the congregation’s ministry, they are more importantly agents of ministry who serve one another and their communities as they share life together.
3. Cultivate Christian practices
Many thriving congregations concentrate their attention on living out their common life and mission through time-honored Christian practices. These practices can take many forms and are rooted in and draw from a wide range of theological and ecclesial traditions. Some common examples of Christian practices include hospitality, testimony, Sabbath rest and singing, among others. Furthermore, thriving congregations attend to these practices in ways that are contextual for their ministry settings and rooted in the particularities of their traditions. Through these intentional Christian practices, congregations cultivate a rich sense of community as they help individuals identify with their congregations and experience belonging through a shared vocabulary and engagement in common rituals and activities. Together, these characteristics help congregations thrive. When congregations have clarity about their values and mission, they are able to identify and focus on their core mission and adapt current and/or develop new, innovative ministries that build on their unique strengths and gifts. Through their attention to Christian practices, they are able to draw on their theological and ecclesial traditions to strengthen connections among and integrate more fully all elements of congregational life and direct them in furtherance of their mission. Through growing a strong sense of who they are, congregations are better equipped to discern how to engage and build relationships in their communities and cultivate partnerships with other organizations including non-profits, civic groups, businesses and others. Such relationships further a congregation’s self-understanding and sense of identity and mission. They also enable the congregation to be more creative, take risks and explore new possibilities for its ministries.