Communities that Change, Congregations that Adapt

by Richard H. Bliese

Richard H. Bliese was professor of mission and evangelism at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago when this article was written.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 7-14, 1998, pp. 21-23. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Each congregation develops a complex network of rituals and habits that define everyday interactions. Congregations that adapt to change seem to be good at creating opportunities for different people to eat together.

Church growth studies, Nancy Ammerman notes, have often followed "success stories" that correlate with key demographic changes. In this respect, church growth is almost predictable. "Where there is a pool of white, middle-class, home-owning families-with-children on which to draw, mainline churches are likely to grow, no matter what their theological orientation."

Ammerman prefers, however, to look at congregations in which growth is not likely—not, that is, if social context alone is the predictor. The 23 congregations surveyed for this study were chosen not according to standards of growth or decline but because they were struggling with social changes. In other words, these are congregations in which people knew both that their immediate environment had changed and that these changes had a major impact on the life of the congregation. Some of the congregations were dying, others were being reborn. It is exactly this struggle to adapt to community change that fascinates Ammerman. A more appropriate title might have been Congregations in Changing Communities.

Ammerman begins by introducing the nine communities in which the 18 focus congregations were selected. (She admits that small mainline churches are overrepresented and evangelical groups underrepresented.) In addition, five mini-studies were conducted within these same nine communities on congregations that were in danger of dying.

The social and spiritual processes of a community’s response to change drive Ammerman to use the biological metaphor of ecology." In any ecosystem, new life forms are constantly emerging as old ones fade from the scene. As resources within the environment change, some species find that they already have the adaptive mechanisms needed for survival. Others evolve new ways of garnering necessary resources for adaptation.

The first hurdle for this study is to determine whether "change" is simply a code word for "race." The answer is yes and no. Ammerman sees her own study as a sequel to the pioneering work done by H. Paul Douglass in 1925. Church in the Changing City. That work led to a host of other studies in the 1960s and ‘70s in which the topic of racial transition is paramount.

Ammerman acknowledges that her 11-year experience with a congregation in Atlanta that successfully stayed in a changing neighborhood and integrated led to her interest in the interaction of congregations and community change. Nevertheless, whereas many earlier studies attended almost exclusively to the issue of racial change, Ammerman concentrates on other transitions as well. Race plays an important role in almost all the communities described in this book, but the problem of "white flight" was not, according to Ammerman, the immediate problem facing any of the congregations under study.

Another notable hurdle for this project was how to measure change. Change is ubiquitous, ongoing, multifaceted and resistant to clean categories. Some changes are welcome, others are to be avoided. Hence the variables of "congregational change" are difficult to quantify or qualify. Ammerman tackles the problem by analyzing three broad dimensions of change: resources, structures of authority, and culture.

Resources are the material and human resources with which congregations have to work (e.g., the building, money, programs, endowments, clergy, network of organizations, and the personal gifts and impulses—"personpower"—of the membership). Resources are the building blocks out of which congregations construct their lives. Changing environments mean changing resources, and paying attention to a congregation’s access to various kinds of resources is essential to understanding its response to change.

Structures of authority determine how congregations are able to make decisions about how to use the resources they have. Ammerman’s book reviews three traditional structures (congregational, presbyterian-federalist and hierarchical), but it also shows that structures can be both formal and informal. The key is to determine how power within the congregation is actually exercised.

The way a congregation uses power to adapt its resources is shaped by its culture, its characteristic ways of acting, speaking and socializing. Each congregation develops a complex network of rituals and symbols, habits and conventions that build everyday patterns of action and interaction. This congregational culture is the mortar that holds the resources and structure of authority together.

By observing the religious ecology of congregations through these categories, Ammerman draws out certain patterns and tendencies in how congregations have adapted to their changing environments.

The clearest pattern is one that pastors and congregational leaders have recognized for years: achieving change depends on trying to change. Ammerman observes that some congregations experiencing serious declines in membership actively resist change or continue with existing patterns of ministry apparently unable to envision how things might be different. She concludes that "congregations that do not try new programs and new forms of outreach when they are faced with environmental change are not likely to survive past the life spans of their current members." Some congregations can indeed survive neighborhood changes by stubbornly sustaining a long-term identity, transferring that identity to a new place, or transforming the church into a regional magnet or "nichechurch." But the bulk of Ammerman’s insights concern more dynamic forms of adaptation, beyond mere institutional survival.

She summarizes various patterns of adaptation under her three analytic categories.

Resources: Ammerman lists a host of resources that assist congregations in adapting to their changing environments, including new programs, denominational partnership with local congregations, strong pastoral leadership, an energetic laity, education and imagination. The one obvious resource not listed is money. This is not an oversight. Ammerman contends that money, though at times of great assistance, is not the key resource congregations need for adaptation.

Structure of Authority: Ammerman observes that "in almost every instance, the congregations that have been newly born, reborn, or significantly changed have also had to work hard at creating and recreating their decision-making structures." She points to a pattern of conflict which "stands in remarkable contrast to the peacefulness of the declining, moving, and niche congregations. This pattern makes absolutely clear that attempting significant changes will involve conflict, and congregations unwilling to engage in conflict will not change."

Culture: Worship and eating, two of the activities most common to all congregations, are key to adaptation. For congregations that have incorporated new populations, these activities are crucial. Ammerman reminds congregations that inclusive eating is as important as inclusive worship experiences. "What adapting congregations seem to do well is to create opportunities for different constituencies to eat together."

Ammerman’s book is rich in detail and scope. With such an abundance of information, many readers might want to skip from the six chapters of survey data to the final two summary chapters on "How Congregations Change" and "Conclusions." But the quality of the concluding chapters will draw the curious reader back to the previous "survey" chapters. How did the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in southwest Atlanta, a neighborhood with a growing African-American population, re-invent itself by establishing a communitywide "niche" ministry? How did East Lynn Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Anderson, Indiana, alter not only its building site but its programs, worship and leadership to adapt to the new site? How did a Lutheran congregation in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, an integrated neighborhood known for its outstanding community services and progressive politics, work in partnership with its denomination (a rare event) to rekindle a dying parish? How did St. Matthew’s Catholic Parish in Long Beach, California, despite having lost much of its traditional constituency, succeed in reaching out to two new population groups—Hispanics and gays?

Such detailed accounts of congregations responding to their changing contexts can serve as marvelous case studies for further reflection. They should serve as useful resources for congregational leaders facing similar challenges or for pastoral students interested in issues of mission leadership. Teachers who enjoy a "case-study" approach to conducting their classes will find here a treasure chest of materials.

With no governmental regulation or subsidy to keep outmoded religious institutions in place in the U.S., the social processes of congregational adaptation are critical to study and understand. Furthermore, the metaphor of "religious ecology" is a cogent and instructive framework within which to conduct such a study.

At the same time, one wonders if there are unwanted theological implications involved in treating American congregations merely from the viewpoint of religious ecology and social change. Shouldn’t an analysis of congregations and social change take seriously a congregation’s own theological identity and self-understanding as "the people of God," the "body of Christ," or as a "sacramental community of God’s grace to the world"? I suggest it must.

Whereas it may be true that theological identity does not help one predict a congregational response to change, it is insufficient to conclude that "congregational adaptation is not well explained by theological and ideological factors." For Ammerman, what counts is not which theological ideas congregations draw on but whether congregations "engage in the work of reshaping those ideas for their new situation." Such a "survival of the fittest" model may not take a congregation’s theological identity seriously enough.

To move beyond mere theories of church growth or models of social change, one will need to supplement this fine study with additional materials. Ammerman’s excellent book attempts to say how congregations adapt to social change, but it does not ask how they try to do so "faithfully." Such a question needs another study.