Do Open and Affirming (ONA) Congregations Have More Vitality?

Rev. Dr. Chris Davies is the Team Leader for Faith Education, Innovation and Formation.  She focuses on spiritual innovation, resourcing local congregations, and helping vision towards the future of the church

I have often heard questions about the correlation between a church’s status as an ONA church and their congregational vitality. While we can clearly point to correlation, the causation is not quite so clear. To begin, we know that much research has been done defining and clarifying what a vital congregation is, and is notSecond, we have been researching the status changes in ONA churches since we started collecting that information as part of their DataHub profile in 2014. So using these two research points, I’d like to explore the relationship between them from a few different angles.

The FACT Congregational Vitality report by Linda Bobbitt references spiritual vital congregations as “those who come together for a divine common purpose in ways that are transformative to the people within them and to their communities.”  There are a few layers present here:

  • Community of people
  • Divine purpose
  • Internal transformation
  • External transformation

Vital congregations are clear about their purpose, and their call from God, and are attentive to the people who are present in their congregation as well as those who are in the community where they are situated. Vital congregations are not associated solely with the number of people they have attending a Sunday morning service and the amount of dollars in a budget. They are measured by connection to God, to each other, and to the world.  

According to research done by CARD, what we know is that ONA churches tend to be larger in membership than non-ONA churches, and report higher budgets.

Source: CARD 2019: 2018 budgets ONA (orange) compared to non-ONA (blue) by percentile (lowest to highest)

In 2014, ONA churches were, on average, 23.7% larger than non-ONA churches. This increased to 31.2% in 2018. While UCC churches, on average, have decreasing memberships, the decline was less in ONA churches from 2014-2018 compared to non-ONA churches during the same time period.  

Source: CARD 2019: ONA churches reported 33% higher average worship attendance than non-ONA churches in 2018.

We can’t say for sure if there is causation, however, we know that an open and affirming church has intentionally cultivated a mission to be connected to the congregation and the community. Arguably, the Open and Affirming conversation and process is one that is designed to facilitate congregational engagement, and thus, could shift a congregation’s perception of their community, call, and connection… or in other words…. their vitality!

I would hypothesize that ONA churches are often more vital because they have practiced the art of having hard conversations.  They have done research into what it means to be in their communities. They have heard hard things and decided in alignment with their theology.  All of these indicators point to a vitality that is beyond even the numbers. And, people who attend or get involved can feel the difference between a church that is doing work of connection and transformation, and a church that is doing the work of maintenance.   

One of the important learnings from the 2015 Faith in the Future report was about young adults’ yearning for churches to be more attentive to the care of those on the margins than the self-preservation of the institution, and that inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds, (LGBTQ, race/ethnicity, language, ability, gender, immigration status, etc) is a key indicator of an attribute of a transformative church.  

To me, this speaks to the hope of our churches. People are looking towards a church that is actively doing the work that they are called to do, in connection to their communities, and in connection to their God. Open and Affirming processes and engagement are one way in which churches find vitality, through a process that supports vital initiatives. Andy Lang, the Executive Director of the ONA Coalition, speaks similarly: “Whenever I visit ONA congregations, I’m amazed at their growth–in spirit, and often in numbers. So I’m not surprised that this research shows that ONA congregations are among the most vital in the UCC: they are attracting more new members, are financially healthier and report higher worship attendance than the average in our church. What we’ve learned is this: an ONA journey can be transformative for a congregation by strengthening relationships and opening doors to new ways of being the church. The story of the ONA movement calls into question the narrative that mainline Christianity is doomed to irrelevance and decline in 21st-century America. It is a powerful revival movement in the UCC, and a sign of hope for the future.”

Questions for consideration:

What was the last hard conversation your church had that wrestled with theology?
How is your church connected to the community outside of the current congregation?

What is God’s call on your congregation?

*The featured image for this post is the outside of ONA congregation – Centre Congregational Church, Brattleboro, VT. To see more images from the Open and Affirming Coalition gallery visit this link https://openandaffirming.org/ona/next/rainbow-signs/ 

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