The mistake that will not die

Bishop Mike Lowry wrote this in a post a few weeks ago.

It is worth noting that the Vital Congregations research (which I shared in every district in 2010) overwhelmingly notes a connection between church missional health/vitality and having multiple styles of worship.

I interpreted this as a reference to the Tower Watson findings in the Call to Action process. If I’m wrong about that, I’d love to know the research that is being referenced here.

If it is Towers Watson, this is exactly a case of why I expressed so much concern about the way the Towers Watson data was being packaged and sold when the Call to Action Steering Team report first came out.

It is absolutely true that the steering team report claims that vital congregations have a mix of worship styles. It is right there on page 24. Unfortunately, that conclusion misses the nuance of the underlying data that can be found in the Towers Watson appendix to the report.

In that set of slides, we discover that having more than one kind of worship style is not a universal sign of higher vitality. Quite the opposite in fact. Only in churches of average worship attendance of 350 or above is having multiple worship styles more associated with high vitality than low vitality.

In churches smaller than 350 average worship attendance there is no positive connection between high vitality and having multiple worship styles. Indeed, at the smallest churches there is a negative association. Small churches and very small churches with multiple worship styles are much more likely to exhibit low vitality.

This is all clearly shown on page 39 of the Towers Watson appendix.

Since the vast majority of our congregations are under 350 average worship attendance this is a dangerous mistake. Our leaders are pressing on congregations the notion that to be vital they must develop multiple styles of worship. But the data on which this claim is based do not support the policy.

And yet the mistaken conclusion keeps getting repeated as gospel truth. I do not understand why.

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7 thoughts on “The mistake that will not die

  1. I suspect that the Call to Action drafters (large church folks) plan to simply develop multi-campus churches. A large church will take over a small church (with less than 125 average worship attendance). Then, they can say that they have “multiple worship styles” in the new mega-church. It is really very simple, John.. CTA is a take-over plot.

  2. My initial assumption in reading the data from that report was that multiple styles and services simply indicated flexibility and a desire to reach new people. (form following function)

    I think smaller churches that are vital can and do find ways to reach new people without copying the style of larger churches.

    I agree that to offer multiple worship styles to churches as a prescriptive would be an error.

  3. In fact, in my small church (85 in attendance), our consultant recently told us to concentrate on our traditional worship only until we grow to 150+ in attendance. We were told to put our contemporary service on hiatus (only 15 or so attend) until this happens. He said we offer excellent traditional worship and should concentrate on that for now.

  4. The Towers & Watson suggestion on multiple worship styles is also misleading for large churches, believe it or not. It is true that in Methodism many vital congregations have several worship styles . . . but that is a function of the fact that many longstanding & stable UMCs simply added a contemporary service to their menu during the 1990s and early 2000s.

    For newer UMCs — and certainly for the larger non-denominational churches — the more prevalent trend is to have one worship style and do it as well as you can. For example, the three largest attended churches in our conference (Western North Carolina) all have multiple services of the same contemporary style. Multiple services with the same vibe. Granger, Ginghamsburg, and Faithbridge all thave the same strategy in our denomination, as do the genuine mega churches in the USA such as Northpoint in Alpharetta, GA.

    While church size is certainly no guarantee of church health, I think it’s important to see why the Towers & Watson reached the conclusion it did on Methodist worship choices . . . whether you look at it through the lens of 150 or 1500 people on Sunday.

    • Thanks for the comment, Talbot.

      I hear your point as being that the “multiple worship” styles finding is more an accident of history than any indication of a cause and effect relationship. That certainly rings true to my reading of the report.

  5. John, I wonder what the results were when looking at Bishop, Pastor and Church responses. They seem to all be combined into this analysis. I have long thought that our Bishops are out of touch with the local churches, and need to be more engaged with what is happening on the ground, every day. My guess is that the vitality of congregations will turn out to be related more to the quality of leadership than to any prescriptive plan. I see so many of our leaders who are “operators” rather than visionaries. Most congregations can operate their churches, what they lack is quality, visionary leadership. There are plenty of micro-managers, but very few macro-managers. Micro-management is a refuge, allowing leaders to exercise an easily quantifiable management “leadership,” rather than engaging in the much harder visionary leadership.

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