Transforming (Mainline) Congregations II

Today we continue the series of interviews with Energion authors on transforming mainline congregations. Last week Dr. Bruce Epperly responded to the interview questions. Today, Dr. Bob LaRochelle, pastor of Second Congregational Church, Manchester, Connecticut, (United Church of Christ), and author of Part Time Pastor, Full Time Church (Pilgrim Press, 2012), Crossing the Street (Energion Publications, 2012), and the forthcoming book So Much Older Then (Energion Publications, 2013).

1. How do you take a church with an old, historical landmark building and a congregation of maybe 50 on a really good Sunday, average age about 60, and transform it into a living, growing faith community?

This resonates with my current situation. I believe it involves the following:

1. Attentiveness to good preaching and worship

2. Active, intentional engagement of participants in the process of INVITING others into participation

3. Stepped up visible presence in the local community and wider communities, including exploration of technological options, possibly including the use of cable TV

4. A church retreat offered once a year. I describe that in my book Part Time Pastor, Full Time Church (Pilgrim Press, 2012)

5. Looking to create youth opportunities that bring young people and their friends onto your property!

Establish a personal pastoral relationship.

2. How can you engage someone brought up as a scientific rationalist in (say) the last 30 years in your church sufficiently long to enable them to have some kind of transformative experience, and how do you get them to stay?

Establish a personal pastoral relationship, invite to be an active participant in educational programming-

3. Can a charismatic, evangelical. mission-based church find a home for a post-modernist theologian/mystic?

I believe so, though I would caution that it must also be a church that takes intellectual inquiry seriously and is open to different expressions and to serious inquiry. The church must be seen as less than monolithic in approach. Overall, I think most churches benefit from pluralism in worship styles.

4. What are the possible roles for young people in a church in renewal? Would you give them opportunities to read, speak, lead a service, provide music, etc.? In other words, how fully can those in their teens (and even younger) participate in leading renewal?

Young people are CRUCIAL in church renewal…. They should be engaged in all church committees, including board of deacons…. Yes on reading, music and PREACHING! Churches should be seen as comfortable places for youth.

Churches should be seen as comfortable places for youth.

5. What role would theological or doctrinal distinctives play in such a church? Is the particular theological flavor of the church important?

It is. Personally, I like a ‘big tent’ approach as exemplified in Augustine and John XXIII- ‘In things, essential, unity; In things, doubtful, liberty; In all things, charity.’ I say this understanding fully well that people will quarrel over essentials….


I also understand that those from a particular doctrinal perspective simply have to seek communities more conducive to their flavor.

6. What role does liturgy play in church renewal? Is it important whether the church is formal or informal, “high church” or “low church,” or what style of music is used?

Liturgy is crucial. It both expresses who the church is and is the key contact point each week. I think BLENDED is best and the ecumenical potential of it enormous. High, low or whatever, there are some keys: It can’t be rote or routine, preaching and music should be done well, the service should hang together in terms of readings, music and liturgical style. People need to prepare worship with the sense that the entire service preaches the Word.

7. Can a pastor in a church that is part of a denomination lead that church in renewal? Do denominational politics prevent the kinds of creative actions that are necessary for church renewal?

Yes to the first question. With respect to the second, I think it is easier wherever local autonomy is operative. However, I have found much impetus for renewal in the work of denominational leadership also.

8. How can a pastor assigned to a new church discern the needs of that church and find the path to renewal for that specific congregation?

In my denomination, we are not assigned. The needs and paths to renewal can be discovered through the search process. I talk about this in Part Time Pastor Full Time Church.

9. What is the role of the pastor’s personal prayer and devotional life (or that of the lay leadership)?

Simply put, it is CRUCIAL!

10. What is the role of the pastor’s academic and professional development in church renewal?

Renewal should be rooted in good theology.

CRUCIAL as well. Renewal should be rooted in good theology. Strong theological knowledge and a working knowledge of the history of the church and renewal movements within it are crucial as well. I also believe openness to the WHOLE Christian tradition is necessary. I believe, as example, that Catholics and Protestants have for too long lived inside their own houses. This led me to want to write Crossing the Street (Energion, 2012) I strongly recommend a serious reading of Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian as well. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll is a good cautionary work with respect to the need for pastoral leaders who take study seriously!

11. What spiritual practices can transform congregational life?

expanding the use of different styles of services and rites e.g. Healing, Taize, Blessing of Animals, sprinkling rites ways of doing Communion…. The list could go on and on…. Basically, utilizing resources from the broad, ecumenical tradition … not being bound to perceived denominational worship styles

– Spiritual Retreat opportunities

– Opportunities for sharing with respect to the sermon…. I even explore doing this within the service of worship in my new book So Much Older Then (Energion 2013). Minimally, providing opportunities for after worship sermon discussion

– Opportunities for service to others with opportunities to REFLECT upon that service the shared praxis approach.