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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Meaning + belonging = participation

Groups give an entry point

Congregations that cultivate both meaning and belonging in a distinctive fashion can see increased participation — even growth, said Kevin Dougherty, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and an expert on church retention and attrition rates.

Detail of illustrationTo cultivate meaning and belonging, church leaders first need to clearly define the gospel message as the rallying point around which everything else in the congregation happens, he said. That core message — the gospel — must resonate with people, he added.

Dougherty said the church also must define “how our faith tradition sets us apart, makes us distinctive and makes us an alternative to [secular society].” It must compellingly answer questions like “Who is the person of Jesus? What is the place of Scripture? What does it mean to be Christian?”

Once the congregation establishes its core message, it can “find ways to promote it, capture people’s sense of interest and connect them together,” he said. “Belonging is connecting individuals beyond superficial ways. The deeper the connections become, the more important church becomes to people.”

Congregations can help make connections by forming specialized small groups (substance abuse support groups, running clubs, knitting clubs, divorce support groups, etc.) based on interests and needs. “The options are limitless,” Dougherty said.

“Groups can give people an entry point into your place of worship and faith community,” he added. “Those connections are invaluable in eventually getting those individuals who are on the margin of church life back [into] full fellowship with the larger body.”


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