What does it take to be a vital church?

Several years ago the United Methodist Council of Bishops spent some time and money studying the nature of church vitality. They recognized that there were churches in the connection that seemed to be growing, in which God was clearly at work, and were deemed by all who saw them as “vital” (which Dictionary.com defines as “…having remarkable energy, liveliness, or force of personality…”). They also recognized that there were many, many churches across the connection that were on life support, that didn’t seem to be filled with life abundant and needed help. This study led to the Council of Bishops “Call to Action” report (sometimes also known as Towers/Watson for the company that conducted the research) and the findings of practices that were common across vital congregations has guided many conversations since the report came out in 2010.

While there were (and continue to be) arguments regarding whether those common practices are indeed prescriptive for bringing about church vitality, what has always been interesting to be is how they defined church vitality — a definition that was hidden in a footnote and rarely articulated in the broader conversation. We have wanted to talk about the leadership function of the pastor or adding contemporary worship, but it’s this definition that I think is the most profound thing in the report, for it offers us a vision of what we are seeking rather than some sort of plan for guaranteeing church success (which may or may not be appropriate for a congregation’s specific context).

The writers of the report said that church vitality is:

…the dynamic state of engagement
that connects people to God, one another, and the world
in profound ways.

Certainly what we have to be about is the work of connection — helping people to connect with and experience God (creator, redeemer, and sustainer), which is assisted through connection to other brothers and sisters in Christ, and those connections inspire and lead us into the world to share God’s love.

But what intrigues me is that before we can be about the work of connection, we must be engaged at a level that inspires us to move out of our individual bubbles, motivates us toward a desire to grow in our relationship with God and our love of neighbor, and allows us as a faith community to believe that we are part of something significant in God’s kingdom.

I remember several years ago developing an interest in a new United Methodist Church out in Mt. Juliet which was growing rapidly. While many of our mainline, United Methodist Church’s were in decline and populated by aging congregations, this church was adding new people weekly, most of whom were under the age of 40. Today that church is often the second largest United Methodist Church in the annual conference based on Sunday morning worship attendance. I wondered why they were so successful, so when I had a Sunday that I was off, I went over to worship with them so I could discern the “special sauce” that was allowing them to grow.

At that time they were meeting in a school, and when I got there several folks of mixed genders and ages met me at the door to welcome me. They were clearly excited about their church, and greeting and ushering wasn’t a chore for them but an opportunity to share their love for their congregation. While the service was “contemporary” in their music, the congregation shared in weekly Communion, and said the Lord’s Prayer and The Apostle’s Creed, not unlike what we do regularly. The pastor was young and energetic, and I enjoyed his sermon, but honestly it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, In all honesty, the worship was good but I could have experienced similar things in any number of congregations throughout the conference.

The difference in THIS church I realized was that the members and staff of the church believed in their hearts that God was doing significant things through their life and work together. They had a positive spirit about God’s work in their midst and were engaged enough to arrive early each morning at the school to set up chairs, erect video screens, set up the band and audio system, and make a special effort to welcome newcomers to their service. They were filled with a sense of purpose, an engagement that led them to be engaged in the work of connection that has stayed with them to this day.

Of course, they are a relatively young congregation, and they don’t have the memory and scars that come with being around for over 150 years. But the truth remains that vitality is intimately connected to that dynamic state of engagement that inspires the passion for carrying out God’s work of connection.

The question for us as a congregation is are we engaged, and if not how do we regain that excitement and passion for God’s work here in Madison. The fact is that we will never be a place of vitality if all we do is come out of duty or habit. We may continue to function, for inertia is a strong force, but we won’t be a place of energy, liveliness or personality unless we truly believe that God is at work in this place, that God has great things in store for us, and that our hope and future is before us, not behind us.

It’s time to check the vital signs.

For God has not called us to be on life support, but rather to be filled with life abundant.

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