Every pastor hopes their church will impact their local community—but even the best ministries and programs have limitations. Often, pastors must rely on the help and leadership of their congregants to invest in their church’s neighborhood. Recently, Barna researchers studied the impact of lay-led initiatives in local communities and what happens when practicing Christians gather together to do good in their neighborhoods. These findings and many more are featured in the Better Together study, the third in a series of reports from Barna’s partnership with Lutheran Hour Ministries.
The power of lay leaders and individual Christians is still felt even in the unique circumstances of 2020: As churches have joined the world in practicing self-isolation, there are still myriad ways that followers of Christ have continued to be a welcome influence in their communities. But are pastors equipping them?
In this article, an adaptation from Better Together, we’ll take a look at how churches support congregants to serve neighborhood needs. You can order Better Together today—advanced copies are now available for purchase.
“I want to encourage church leaders to begin to measure the outcomes and look at what it would mean to reorient how we evaluate church leadership and pastors, not just by how well they lead the members who are already part of our church, but how well they help us to serve our communities.” –Glenn Barth, Good Cities
How Churches Nurture & Release People to Do Good
Though pastors’ top ministry priorities—worship (29%) and teaching (27%)—center around Sunday services, lay-led initiatives mesh well with many of their stated aims. It’s not hard to see how congregants’ involvement in groups that act in and impact their neighborhoods could provide opportunities for effective outreach and evangelism, relationship building and, of course, community engagement, all ranked among pastors’ priorities.
While groups might gather outside of formal church structures and teaching, such independent initiatives could also be encouraged as part of discipleship—the number-one priority for one in four pastors (25%). These community groups not only may lead to hands-on, in-person experiences in redemptive work but also, as practicing Christians tell us, contribute to personal spiritual growth, as well as many other benefits.
The research findings may be preaching to the pulpit here; pastors already see tremendous value in lay-led initiatives—in fact, the majority prefers them to new church programs (40% agree strongly, 52% agree somewhat) and feels that lay people taking on responsibility is a mark of an increasingly healthy church (68% agree strongly, 28% agree somewhat). Accordingly, nearly all (97%) can think of at least one congregant-led community that has had a positive impact on their church, with more than two-thirds (68%) saying all of them have been a benefit.
Though pastors still assume a lot of personal responsibility in various aspects of sharing the gospel or doing good works, their responses indicate they are counting on everybody in their congregation to take up the mantle of representing the Church in the community. In some cases, they’re more likely to place responsibility on the whole church as a body than on their church staff or even on themselves. Among the things they especially hope any member might embrace are evangelism and outreach (85%), showing others how to live as Christians (79%), helping the poor (77%), teaching others about God (60%) and giving practical help to those in sickness, transition or crisis (59%).
“I think it’s critically important for churches to lead some of the initiative and vision. There are dreamers and there are doers, and there’s a Venn diagram where they cross.” –Emily Gibson, Thrivent Action Teams
Overall, this emphasizes the theme that church leaders endorse empowering laity. But the reality is that pastors may be hoping for much from laity without offering much in the way of growth opportunities. For example, just 9 percent strongly agree their team is good at developing new leaders; another half (50%) somewhat agree. Whether because of high standards or low investment, 41 percent of pastors feel their churches are doing a poor job when it comes to leadership development.
Churchgoers’ Local Presence During a Time of Distance
Despite pastors’ doubts surrounding leadership development at their church, a plurality of leaders says that their church and congregants are making an effort to support their local community right now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In Barna’s most recent pastor panel check in (April 28-May 4), church leaders say their congregations are primarily focusing on helping distribute food and supplies (37%), reaching out to elderly, isolated and at-risk community members (24%) and providing financial resources to those who are struggling (8%). A quarter of pastors (24%) , however, says their church does not have an official or organized response at this time.
That hasn’t stopped lay people from setting out to do good in their community, though. Over half of U.S. pastors (53%) report their people are organizing outside of church programs to meet needs during the crisis. Given the data above on congregant-led initiatives, this is cause for celebration among church leaders and also an amazing opportunity for pastors to equip and encourage their people to continue being a source of comfort, healing and hope in their communities.
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About the Research
This quantitative study consisted of two online surveys. The first was a survey of 2,500 U.S. adults conducted from July 25–August 19, 2019. The sample breakdown was as follows: 1,505 U.S. practicing Christians (meaning they self-identify as Christian, say their faith is very important in their life and have attended church within the past month other than for a holiday service or for a special event, such as a wedding or funeral), and 995 adults who are not practicing Christians. The margin of error for this sample is + / – 1.7 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Researchers set quotas to obtain a minimum readable sample by a variety of demographic factors and weighted the two samples by region, ethnicity, education, age and gender to reflect their natural presence in the American population (using U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison).Partly by nature of using an online panel, these respondents are slightly more educated than the average American, but Barna researchers adjusted the representation of college-educated individuals in the weighting scheme accordingly.
The second quantitative online survey was conducted among 508 U.S. Protestant senior pastors from July 25–August 13, 2019. These pastors were recruited from Barna’s pastor panel (a database of pastors recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys) and are representative of U.S. Protestant churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error for this sample is + / – 4.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
This study also included ethnographic research and qualitative interviews with 18 individuals who had some kind of experience working with community groups and organizations. These interviews, conducted July–September 2019, used a flexible script to learn how such groups form, how they work and what makes them effective.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020