Becoming a Missional Congregation

Rod Frohman, Temporary Pastor/Head of Staff


What activates participation in the life of a congregation? What sustains people’s efforts over time in the face of barriers and obstacles? Why do you actually bother to do what you do at Third Presbyterian Church? Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major challenge to participation in the life of the church, and yet you have remained engaged. Now that we are almost out of quarantine, we can begin to reflect on what has sustained us during this time.

Over the last six years I have worked with the Rev. Jim Evinger as a consultant with 11 congregations in our Presbytery, to understand and respond to this exact dilemma: what activates and sustains member participation in everything from attending worship to being an officer of the church? Fortunately, we’re not the first ones to ask this question. There are a number of thoughtful practitioners who have made a career out of “congregational studies,” that is, the careful, theological and behavioral observation of the life of congregations. These practitioners are akin to Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, only instead of studying villages, they study congregations. If there is anything different about me from what I was nine years ago before I retired, it is that I have become a type of Margaret Mead, attempting to uncover what “successful” congregations are doing and being.

For most North Americans, our churches have long been understood as places to which Christians came and gathered for worship. In fact, our cultural heritage since the 19th century was the church as a place where a Christianized civilization gathered together before God. In academic circles this is called “Christendom.” However in the last 30 years, a new and alternative vision has been raised. The “missional” church is a place from which Christians, as a body of disciples, are supported, equipped and sent out by God in mission. “Thus our challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church.” So says Darrell L. Guder, of Princeton Theological Seminary.

What Jim Evinger and I found out, and what we have shared with the 11 congregations we have been working with, are five factors which, if done well, activate and sustain missional congregations. 

Identity: stories of the congregation’s past which live in the present and guide the future. Another way to say this is, stories “tell” the congregation, as much as congregations tell stories. 

Vitality: communication about the life and health of the faith community—its vital signs. A congregation shows its vitality by telling its stories to an internal audience as well as external ones. A “Minute for Mission” is one example.

Process: the administrative functions of the congregation; the processes of decision-making and communicating. Processes are not all that romantic, but without efficient processes in place, participants become very discouraged.

Motivation: the internal and external aspects of church life that affect attitudes and behaviors of individuals as well as teams and committees. Volunteers participate in the church because they first have some intrinsic level of motivation, but support systems and skill development are also necessary to sustain that motivation over time.

Context: the geographic site of a congregation’s building as well as the relational ties it has in the community. We would be a very different congregation if we were located on Joseph Avenue, or if we weren’t connected to all kinds of other churches and agencies in the community.

Over the next several months, while I am your interim pastor, I will be regularly reflecting with you in this column about these five factors. I invite your response, dialogue, and insight.

Cordially yours,