Is Your Congregation a Swamp, a Reservoir, or a Canal?

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Is your congregation cut off and inwardly focused? Primarily a storehouse of resources? Or a connector that brings things together? The images of swamp, reservoir, and canal can reveal the challenges and opportunities impacting your church’s vitality says F. Douglas Powe, Jr., Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and James C. Logan, Chair of Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship), at Wesley Theological Seminary.


“Are you a reservoir or are you a canal or a swamp?” Howard Thurman posed this question in relation to our personal lives. I believe the question is relevant to congregations as well.

Swamp

Thurman describes a swamp as a place that hoards, is friendless, and where things decay. Writing at a time that predates our modern understanding of a swamp as a complex, living ecosystem, Thurman draws on the popular parlance of his day to describes a swamp as a scary place that swallows life.

Applying Thurman’s definition of swamp to congregations, a swamp church is one that hoards, is friendless (or only inwardly friendly), and where things decay. If your congregation is like a swamp, it hoards all forms of resources. It does not seek to connect with outsiders. It is decaying slowly. Ultimately, the congregation will die, even if it is a slow and lengthy death.

Reservoir

Thurman says a reservoir “is a place in which water is stored in order that it may be available when needed.” A reservoir is a storehouse for supplies. It is a place where one can go and get something that is needed. A reservoir assures that water is available when needed, so it is important that the water supply does not diminish to a point where the reservoir may run dry.

Reservoir churches are perceived as places that have resources. These congregations often focus on providing material resources to those in their community. They are involved in feeding ministry, clothing ministry, and so on. Unlike swamp congregations, they seek to connect with those outside the congregation. In most cases, they are more vital than swamp congregations because they are not entirely inwardly focused. However, a reservoir congregation still faces challenges. Reservoir congregations are more vital than swamp congregations, but they can take on a swamp mentality if they are not careful. These congregations are at risk of taking a step backward if they do not move forward with boldness.

Canal

Thurman wrote that “the function of a canal is to channel water”—it helps water flow or move from place to place. He describes a canal as a connector. It is a body of water linked to things outside of itself. Imagine a canal congregation as a body that links to things outside of itself. It is outwardly focused because it is always looking to connect to things beyond its origin.

A canal congregation knows its transforming power is in the ability to move away from its center and not remain stagnant in one place. It seeks to touch others in the community and get them engaged in discipleship. A canal congregation realizes this may not always happen inside the church building. It seeks to reach people where they are and impact their lives.

The challenge of being a canal congregation is a willingness to always be a connector — connecting with people outside of the church and connecting people inside and outside the church to Jesus. The work of connecting never ends and requires a constant channeling of resources. It is not dependent on the size of the congregation, but it depends rather on the congregation’s level of commitment. If a canal congregation is not vigilant in maintaining an outward focus, it runs the risk of becoming a social service agency or a hoarding congregation.

Honest self appraisal

Is your congregation a swamp, a reservoir, or a canal? This is the question that all congregations need to ask and answer honestly. Here are some key questions in a process of honest self-appraisal.

  • How many visitors do you see on average in a month?
  • How are you modeling for those inside the congregation what it means to be to imitators of Jesus?
  • How are you modeling for those outside the congregation what it means to be imitators of Jesus?
  • How many visitors return a second time or continue coming?
  • How many people do you connect with in the community during the month?
  • How are these community connections happening?
  • Are these connections based on giving out food, clothing, and so on?

This list is not meant to be comprehensive but to help you take a serious look in the mirror. If you are not seeing visitors or they do not come back, that should raise a red flag. If you are making no community connections or the connections simply exist to hand out goods, that should raise a red flag.

Taking the next faithful step

If the goal for all Christian communities is to participate in God’s transforming work, what is the process for doing this? How do swamp and reservoir congregations take the next faithful step? The key is to continually ask, “How do we as a congregation participate in God’s transforming work?” And the key to answering this question involves the congregation’s mission and vision. How do they align with efforts to participate in God’s transforming work?

Realistically, not every congregation will end up as a canal. But many swamp congregations can take the next faithful step and become a reservoir. Just think of the difference it will make in our communities if there are many more reservoir congregations. I truly believe we are called to this work for such a time as this!


This article is excerpted from The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020) by F. Douglas Powe, Jr. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.


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