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Who Speaks for You? The U.S. Congregational Life Survey

Truth matters, and what people do with the truth matters even more. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge built over Puget Sound, Washington, collapsed four months after it was constructed. At the time, the reason for the collapse was a mystery. When engineers and architects studied the bridge and determined "nothing was wrong," they decided to rebuild the bridge in exactly the same way. Theodore Von Karman, a distinguished Hungarian-born professor of physics, heard of the decision and warned that if the bridge was rebuilt in the same way, it would fall again in the same way. His recommendation was based on an understanding of moderate winds--a harmonic principle known today as "Von Karman's Vortex." His warning was met with suspicion and skepticism. Looking for ulterior motives, the builders asked him: "What is your interest in this? Who do you represent? For whom do you speak?"

In his rich Hungarian accent, Von Karman replied: "I speak for the wind." (Note 1.)

Who speaks for congregations? Who speaks for you?

This story illustrates a principle that many congregational leaders understand--truth matters. Basing actions on an accurate assessment of reality is critical. We cannot ignore the wind.

In our work with congregations we've struggled to provide meaningful benchmarks. It's as if we have taken a blood pressure reading for church health without benefit of any information about the range of "normal" or average. The results of a large research effort coming soon to your city will lay the foundation for helping congregations identify their uniqueness in three critical areas of church life-- beliefs and religious practices, community involvement, and attracting new members.

On April 29, 2001, more than 600,000 people (more people than live in Albuquerque, New Mexico) will complete surveys in the first truly random sample of worshipers in America's congregations. Over 3,000 churches, parishes, synagogues, temples, mosques, and chapels will take part. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey results will comprise a religious census of the people in the pews at the turn of the century. It is a moment to gain a fresh perspective upon which to base congregational thinking, priorities, planning, and action.

Every congregation that participates in the project will get a report that summarizes the answers of those who worship there and compares their responses to those of all worshipers who take part in this study. The report will tell the age profile of the congregation, how many are newcomers to the faith and how many have transferred to the congregation from other congregations, and give information about the vitality of the congregation in three areas-- attracting new members, involvement in the community, and faith development. Accompanying materials will help congregations use the report and suggest tools for positive change based on that information.

What do we hope to learn? The strengths of congregations that make a difference in effective ministry. For congregational leaders to realistically identify strengths, they need to know what to look for, what to develop, recognize, and celebrate. We assume that identified strengths are more effective beginning points for creating a positive future than what is wrong or what needs to be fixed. We expect to find that every congregation has several strengths which can be foundational for building more effective ministry.

Who speaks for you?

P.S. A national random sample of congregations was invited to participate in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey to establish the benchmarks on key areas of congregational life. Look for more information in early 2002 when the results become available.

Note 1. Remarks by Paul C. O'Brien, chairman of New England Telephone, Newcoming Society award ceremony, printed in The Executive Speaker, February 1995.

This article first appeared in Monday Morning a magazine for Presbyterian leaders.

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Last modified April 20, 2001 by U.S. Congregations Home Page Manager