When I wrote l the book Vital Signs, I shared that there was no magic formula for vitality, and that I have yet to find the perfect church — a church that is healthy and vital in every way. I also stated that there was no single prescription for vitality. What works wonderfully in one church may not work at all in another. This is true of pastoral leaders as well — just because one has phenomenal results in one setting guarantees nothing in a different setting. Our healthiest churches know their own context, story and vision so well, that they are able to develop an appropriate and effective system for spiritual vitality. The key learning for vital churches: no one else has your answer. There is no resource, model or packaged program that magically delivers vitality.
However, there are a few characteristics that all vital churches have in common. Not surprisingly, these characteristics are all grounded in how well the congregation understands itself. Self awareness and self management are two characteristics of emotional intelligence in individuals. They are as important as measures of ecclesial intelligence in the congregation.
What I offer here is a simple set of four questions. Every vital church in my research study wrestled with, studied, prayed about, discussed, and acted on these four questions (or similar variations). Discussion of these questions was not limited to the leadership of the congregation, but they were the topic of discussion and reflection for anyone and everyone. While I cannot make the claim that these questions will result in vitality, I can say that I have yet to find any congregation that is truly healthy where all four questions have not been clearly and completely answered. The questions are:
- What is our story?
- What is our purpose?
- What is our witness?
- What is our impact?
What Is Our Story?
Every congregation has a story — a history. No church has an unblemished and perfect record. Our story is a mix of blessing and blunder. Our history is a source of pride and shame, guilt and glory. Key events shaped us. Significant people led and taught us. Transitions and changes redirected us. Conflicts and conquests work on us still, no matter how long in the past they occurred. Pastoral appointments made us better, made us worse, strengthened us, weakened us, lifted us up and knocked us down. Our habits, practices, beliefs, values, and commitments reflect who we are. We all have things we are proud of, and things we wish would go away, and things we hope no one ever finds out about. All congregational histories are a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have no control over our past, but it can have great control over our future if we’re not careful. Unless we know where we came from, it will be difficult to go someplace new. Answering the question “What is our Story?” is the way we define:
- Who we are
- What is important to us
- How we operate
- What we like about ourselves
- What we wish we could change
- Where we’re strong
- Where we’re weak
The importance of knowing our story is that it helps us better understand how we got where we are, and why we aren’t somewhere else. It helps a congregation know what to tell newcomers and visitors in order to form lasting relationships. A widespread criticism of our existing congregations by visitors and outsiders is that we “don’t know our own story — as congregations and as a connection.”
What is Our Purpose?
Why are we here? Why does our congregation exist? Is our church God’s will or our own? Are we here to do God’s work or are we here to do work we think God might enjoy? Purpose-based questions are never simple or straightforward. Merely identifying our purpose is a starting point rather than an ending point. For each aspect of our understanding of purpose we name, we need to explore as deeply as possible “why” what we do is worth doing. Our purpose is to make disciples? Why is disciple-making worth our time? How important is it? Why should we care? These deeper questions push us beyond naming a purpose that sounds good to embracing a purpose that defines and directs us.
Purpose is more than mission, though the two terms are often used interchangeably. A mission defines our reason for being, but purpose goes further to explain why the mission is worth pursuing. Our denominational mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Why does the world need transformation and why are disciples a good way to transform it? Why is the life of discipleship important? These questions force us to clearly define our terms — what do we mean by “disciple?” What does “transformation of the world” look like? What is our role in making disciples, in transforming the world? Purpose work pushes us beyond merely figuring out what we should do, to why we must do it.
What is Our Witness?
What is our reputation in the community and world? What are we known for? What messages are we sending? What are we communicating about God, Christ, the church, and the faith through what we say and do? You can’t answer these questions within the church fellowship. To answer the questions about our witness we have to go outside. We need to talk to visitors. We need to talk to neighbors. We need to talk to strangers. We need to talk to community leaders. We need to talk — to people.
Our witness is the clearest and loudest representation of our core values. If we love the world, the world will know it. If we love the poor, the poor will know it. If we love ourselves, we will know it — and no one else will know anything about us. If we put all our resources into our building, it speaks volumes about what we love. If we put our resources into caring for the existing fellowship, it reflects the desires of our heart. If we use our resources to reach and serve others, it exposes our passion. Where our treasure is, there our heart is also. Actions DO speak louder than words.
Our witness is not limited to what we say. Often, the witness by which we are judged is non-verbal. A large church I worked with couldn’t pay their denominational apportionments, but they could add onto their building, they could expand their parking lot, they could remodel their education wing, and they could put statuary and topiary around their building. This church opened itself to host many programs of the annual conference because it proclaimed how “connectional ministry” is SO important. It is no surprise that the church is mocked and reviled within the conference. What it really cares about is crystal clear, no matter how much they say other things.
Jesus asked his followers, “who do you say that I am?” His reputation had power. What people believed about Jesus had power. The reputation of our churches define us. What people believe about us has the power to attract them or repel them. Perception shapes, and often defines, reality. It is never enough to simply understand who we think we are; we must discover what other people think of us.
Witness is all-inclusive and systemic. Each member of the church is a holographic representation of the whole. Each person is an ambassador of Christ, of the Christian community, and of the connectional church. Think about that for a moment. What people think of The United Methodist Church may be based on what they know of one United Methodist congregation, or even one United Methodist. Is this fair? Maybe not. Is it true? Definitely. When we think of our witness we think not only of our congregation, but of our congregational members and participants as well as our denomination. Some key questions for reflection are:
- what do people know about God because we are here?
- what values does our church model and proclaim?
- what are we known for?
- what do people believe about us that we want them to?
- what are people ignorant of about us that we wish they knew?
- what do people believe about us that we don’t want them to?
- what do we want people to know about God more than anything else?
- what do we want people to know about Christ more than anything else?
- what do we want people to know about us more than anything else?
These are the kinds of question that help us understand our witness — what it is today, and what it could be in the future.
What Is Our Impact?
What difference do we make? It is as simple as this. What difference do we make in people’s lives? How are people growing in their faith? How is the community benefiting from our existence? How is the world being transformed? What value are we adding to the work of Christ in the world? The impact we are making is the most overlooked and under-examined aspect of the ministry of The United Methodist Church today. We offer worship — what difference does it make? We hold Bible studies — what difference does it make? We have small groups — what difference do they make? How do we assess? How do we measure? How do we know?
There is only one way to answer the impact question — in intentional, meaningful dialogue. You can measure impact, but you cannot count impact. Having twenty people in worship tells us nothing about what is happening to the faith of those twenty people. Having nine Disciple Bible Study groups reveals nothing about the faith development of the participants in these studies. Sending a dozen couples on an Emmaus Walk offers no proof that their lives were changed. If disciple-making for world transformation is our job, then we need critical processes by which to evaluate how effectively we are equipping people to live their faith in the world.
This requires some benchmarks and targets by which to measure development. What does maturing in the Christian faith look like? What phases or stages of development characterize the lifelong journey of Christian discipleship? What should we offer to all “beginners?” What do we need to move to a deeper faith? What moves a person from belief in God to discipleship in Christ? What moves us to mastery of our gifts? How do we continuously evolve in our spiritual development? There isn’t a single standard or set of criteria, but each community of faith needs to develop some criteria appropriate to their context by which to assess the growth of each participant. There is no justification for a “flatline” church, where participants reach a plateau and stay there throughout their lives.
If we don’t know what difference we make through the work we do today, it is impossible to consistently improve our ministry and service in the future. Unless we are aware of what people need in order to move to the next level of development in their faith, we cannot provide the most meaningful experiences for continuous growth. Vital churches have a systemic, integrated, developmental process for all participants to continuously promote movement toward spiritual maturity and radical discipleship.
These four questions are foundational to the identity, purpose, practice, and meaning of healthy congregations. They answer succinctly who we are, why we’re here, what we do, and what difference we make. They define us. They describe us. They drive us. And they determine our vitality. Churches that cannot answer these questions suboptimize their potential. Without clarity about our story, our purpose, our witness, and our impact, we lack the necessary self-awareness for congregational effectiveness. Lacking such self-awareness, we lack the necessary information and insight to manage our ministry effectively — we don’t know what needs to change, what needs to improve. We tend to work harder and harder trying to luck into some positive results. Without congregational self-awareness, we race from resource to resource, new program to new program, training seminar to training seminar in a desperate attempt to find something — anything — that will give us some small success. In the absence of internal understanding, we seek external answers. But again, the healthiest churches learned along the way — no one else has your solution. God has given you all the gifts, all the knowledge, all the experience, all the passion, and all the opportunity you need to be a healthy, vital, thriving church.