As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, I am going through the Call to Action Study put out by the Council of Bishops with my congregation. In our first session we covered sections 1-3 and in the second session we examined 4-6.
The call to grow more vital congregations. My folks noticed that the definition or criteria for being labeled as a “highly vital” congregation was based on the three things mentioned: 1) cong. growth over 5 year period, 2) engagement of members in ministry/mission, 3) outward forcus by making new disciples and generous giving. Many of them said that they absolutely agree with those second and third critera because engagement means that members are taking a role and living out their discipleship, but they are not sure that growth in numbers is a good indicator for vitality in this day and age. In any case, they were confident that growth would not occur if engagement and outward focus were not also happening.
A large chunk of our conversation around this point was asking if growth is possible when the culture at large is working against us. We are fighting sports, working parents, family time, school activities, and on Sunday mornings at least, we are losing the battle. We live in a community that has not experienced any real growth according to census figures at large. The folks who are not currently involved in church seem to have little interest in being involved. We believe we have something important and vital to offer, and can share that, but people do not always respond. Does that mean that we are not being faithful? Is our faithfulness being based on the response/hardheartedness of the culture surrounding us? Tis lead us into questions about how we can help to change the culture around us. What is it that we offer? Fellowship, ways to actively live out our faith, studies, we are the body of Christ and don’t have to be on our own, we share with our brothers and sisters and find value in that kind of community centered around Jesus Christ. I found a tension in their answers that ranged from a firm desire to get more kids in Sunday School to an emphasis on saving souls; from reclaiming/changing culture to being a set-apart entity that might NOT be popular, but still can be faithful.
This section also included five ways that the “adaptive spiritual challenge” is defined – aka, the problem behind the numbers. They sensed that division and mistrust is a problem – not so much on the larger levels, but they experienced how they lost people in their church when there was conflict amongst themselves. They agreed that we are not comfortable with setting goals, because then that means we might have to actually do something about it and follow through. They absolutely feel like they are not always connecting with the nominally and non-religious people in their community, but in many ways struggle to imagine what they might have to do differently. They see the issue as a two-way street. We need to invite and connect with new people, but there are also many who are burnt out from continually asking and inviting and always being told no.
Then, this section layed out the challenge: to grow more vital congregations. We really liked the definition here of a vital congregation as a community of believers under the lordship of Christ – but we weren’t sure how that connected with the other things that were mentioned earlier in the section. It seemed like that piece came out of the blue and it was the first time that was mentioned! We had talked earlier about the need to get back to basics – talking about salvation, following the Holy Spirit, prayer, and that if we did that, everything else would fall in line, so we liked that it was part of the expanded definition in this section. But we also really dove into the idea that we have to live that out in our lives. We have to participate in the redemption of the world. We have to smile more, greet people more, be a Christian every moment of the day. We have to forgive a little more and be people of grace in everything thta we do. Someone told a story about how their son had a bad experience with another church and came back saying – “if those are Christians, I don’t want anything to do with them.” Someone also made note that it was ironic there were pruning shears on the picture – if we are pruning back in order to grow, sometimes that means people who aren’t committed will leave the church, and sometimes that is a good thing for the overall growth and spread of the gospel.
16 Drivers of Vital Congregations I was disappointed there was NOTHING to explain the drivers, how they were arrived at, what they meant in the context of this study. Knowing what I do from our orders event and reading I have done for General Conference, I explained that these 16 drivers were characteristics that those 15% of congregations that were vital had. So compared with other churches they had more of this, and more of that, and these were descriptors that pointed at what made them vital.
We looked at them by sections, starting with children and youth. Someone asked if having a preschool helped a congregation to be more vital and connect with the community. We talked about our youth group at the church and outreach into the community in that area. In a small church, we don’t have the people to have a lot of programs – so will we always struggle with vitality? Does it count when we are doing these things in partnership with other churches?
Lay leadership we found to be very important. Our congregation has not had a history of lay leaders understanding their roles very well and this is something we are working to change. We also have not challenged our lay leadership to really grow in their personal faith journey and are trying to focus on that as well. They were astonished at number 7 which said 20% or more of their worship attendees describe themselves as current or past leaders. I pointed out, however, that since our average worship attendance is only 50, that would mean only 10 people see themselves that way. We currently have 12 on our church council, which is more than that.
We had a lot of discussion in the “pastors” category about how long the pastor stays being an indicator of effectiveness. This is a congregation that has had a lot of short term pastorates and feel like when they finally get something going with a pastor, he/she is pulled away. They feel like longer appointments would help them to have a better cohesiveness. Someone compared it to dating and talked about the importance of chemistry. When you find the right fit, you can’t always replace that right away, if ever. There also is sometimes a lame duck time. They are used to pastors leaving after a few years and expect them to move and give up working and expecting things to change.
In the last category of worship, we talked about the reality of small churches. We do not have multiple services, so is a blended service okay? The drivers only talk about contemporary OR traditional. We do have wonderful multi-media capabilities in our church and celebrated that.
As you can see… we had a lot of conversation! And so with the time constraints, we skipped ahead to what is the Call to Action for laity in the church. I wanted them to see where they specifically were being challenged to grow/act. Their initial perception was that it sounded good and really called them to take action. We felt like a lot of what we are already doing with our “Co-Missioned” process fit into this naturally (we are finishing up a two year church revitalization and missional focus process thingy). Several talked about how they felt like they need to personally take action. They realized that coming to church and sunday school is fine, but that they need to get up and do more in the church. One person said that they would if they knew what they could do, if someone personally asked and invited them to do something. We talked about how we need to encourage and ask people to serve more. This is something that has been a natural outcome of that Co-Missioned process for our church and in fact is the next step on our journey, so it was good for them to hear we are already working on that.
As I process what they have said, one of the realizations I had is that there was a lot of explaining and background work that I needed to do. We do not do a good job of talking about the structure, mission, vision of the church, the four areas of focus, the larger goals of the denomination, new people and new places, etc. When we can make those connections, great, but it is not something that is readily known to every lay person. It can all get very confusing because there are so many different things to focus on. But people were eager to learn, connect, and overall were very supportive of our denominational connections. The level of mistrust we sometimes talk about between local churches and the denomination just wasn’t there. This is a congregation that is on the cusp of “vitality” – they are growing spiritually, they are deepening in their engagement with the church and community and are extraordinarily generous… yet, compared with these drivers and indicators and definitions, they aren’t sure quite where they fit. They know they haven’t arrived and aren’t sure if they will ever grow in the way this is asking them to. They know they will never be a large church, but they are determined to be small but mighty.