I just started reading Dan R. Dick’s Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness. It is one of those books that as I am reading it, I keep thinking, I wish I had had this book when I started my first appointment. In Vital Signs churches are classified into four different types, decaying, dystrophic, retrogressive, and vital congregations. There is a diagnostic tool in the back of the book that is designed to help you identify where your congregations fits. The book is written based on research studying 717 different United Methodist congregations.

I just finished reading the chapter on Retrogressive Congregations. These are congregations that “are highly focused, highly stable congregations that are losing participants” (67). Churches usually only stay in this phase for a while and move from there to decaying or vital. They are retrogressive typically because the church has chosen to increase commitment and focus in a very specific way. This causes many people to leave, but those who stay are more committed than ever before. Thus, in retrogressive congregations the numbers are dropping, while more powerful ministry is happening than has ever previously occurred.

The main critique that Dick gives of these types of churches is that they often fail to balance acts of mercy with acts of piety, usually emphasizing acts of mercy and service at the expense of acts of piety. (Please understand that the point is not at all that acts of mercy are bad. Just that vitality comes from a blend of acts of mercy and acts of piety.)

A few interesting points of interest about retrogressive congregations:

  • Money and Giving: According to Dick’s research the average annual giving of a new member of a retrogressive congregation is $4,271 a year. In vital churches that number is $2,441, dystrophic – $1,487, and decaying – $1,156! That is an amazing difference.
  • Retrogressive congregation’s relationship to the connection: “There is no diplomatic way to describe the relationship of most retrogressive congregations to the connectional system: it’s bad. And where it isn’t bad, it’s worse” (87).

On the poor relationship with the connection Dick further writes:

The leaders of retrogressive churches deeply resent the fact that most connectional and conference leaders continue to measure inputs instead of outputs. Fifty people feeding one thousand hot meals a week is nowhere valued as highly as five hundred people feeding no one” (88).

That quote really brought me up short. Do you think this is true? What are the implications for the church and how we do business if it is true?