Common barriers to congregational growth: forgetting to focus on worship

August 07, 2013

The Minnesota Conference’s office of congregational development provides strategy and resources for launching new faith communities and revitalizing existing congregations.

In this capacity, I have the opportunity to connect with United Methodist churches all across Minnesota. We are diverse in size, location, culture, ethnicity, mission field, age, theology, socio-economics, organizational structure, worship style, and a variety of other factors. At the same time, we share a common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and we are all challenged by many of the same issues that thwart this mission. In this series, I address five of the most common barriers to congregational growth in spirituality, number, and community impact.

Previously, I addressed the barrier of the lack of clear and powerful core values and ministry vision. This month, we focus on the need for vital worship. Some argue that in this post-modern/post-Christian era, spirituality is cultivated more through engagement with the human realm than the divine, more through impact on the earthly than connection with the heavenly. Historically, however, the immanence of the gospel loses its purpose and power when failing to live in tension with the transcendence of the gospel. In other words, worship is not only a distinctive behavior of the Christian church, it is also central to the effectiveness of everything else the church does. For many, it is also an entry point not only to the church, but to a God who has become a distant and seemingly irrelevant entity in their daily life.

What does vital worship look like?

Vital worship isn’t defined by crowds or small groups, traditional or contemporary, informal or formal, participatory or presentational, topical or lectionary, but by how effectively the experience builds people’s individual relationship with God and their collective ability to partner with God’s work and witness. Vital worship is cultivated not by institutional programming, but by spiritual discipline.

Cathy Townley, one of our conference clergy, recently published a book entitled Missional Worship. She writes, “Right now, in many of our churches, worship is not our focus. The worship service is. The distinction is sometimes hard to see, until we think about the things people in seats do to try to control God. Have you ever thought that our focus on the worship service—not worship lifestyle—is part of the problem?”

What would worship look like if it began with the yearnings of the heart, the questions of the mind, the angst of the gut, and the directing of hands and feet? What would worship look like if it was a celebration of God’s presence in our lives and an invitation to deploy the presents that God has bestowed on us for ministry? What would worship look like if it fulfilled the purpose of serving a congregation’s mission field rather than the personal preferences of the congregants? What would worship look like if it was a lifestyle rather than a spectator sport?

Recently, I was convening a conversation about worship in a long-established church. Topics of appropriate dress, music style and volume, seating, themes, timing, and flow started to elicit more heat than light. As conflicting opinions escalated, one faithful and aging sage reflected, “I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that the future of the church isn’t about meanymore. It’s about what I’m willing to do for people like my kids and grandkids to feel like church is a meaningful part of theirlife.”

Vital worship is different in every ministry context. The Minnesota Conference’s office of congregational development provides resources and coaching to guide and support churches in this ever-changing task of offering the life-changing message of Christ. We’d also like to publicize your stories about God’s transforming power in your worship community. Please send a note to

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

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