Vital Is As Vital Does

worn outHow are we defining “vital” in the UMC?  Is vitality mere existence?  Is a congregation with a lot of warm, passive bodies vital?  Are people huddled inside their doors happily waiting to be friendly to unsuspecting visitors vital?  Is a congregation that hosts a dozen small groups that do movie/football/bowling nights vital?  Does a lively praise band make us vital?  Do we become vital when we attract 5% more people?  10%?  20%?  Is there are clear crossover point between vitality and non-vitality?  Does age make a difference?  Economics?  Can we have a vital, financially poor church?  Is it possible for a small congregation of 70-80-year-olds to be vital?  Is vitality measured by the number of people who come to us or the number of people we equip to serve others?  Can a church that eliminates inactive members and is 50% smaller today than it was five years ago be vital?  Is a church of less-than-100 members vital?  Does a church need a full-time, paid ordained pastor to be vital?  What about a church that offers only one kind of worship?  Do churches without youth and children qualify as vital?

The more deeply I look at our denomination’s stories of vitality, the more depressed I get.  Oh, certainly there are some wonderful things to celebrate, but our fixation with numbers is completely out of hand.  To be quite honest, the stories I know of truly vital, vibrant Christian spiritual community are almost all non-institutional church related.  When I studied spiritual seekers in US culture from 2004 through 2009, I found that the most highly motivated, deeply spiritual and discipleship-minded Christians had left mainstream church to form small group community, and the results were true vitality.  Hearkening to first century scriptural description, these were mobile, flexible groups who worshipped, learned, served, prayed, broke bread, and grew together.  They didn’t plug their religion into their lives, they organized their living around their sense of call and vocation.  Money was never a problem — each gave liberally and invested in the work of the whole.  Time and volunteerism was never a concern — the group operated at a prime capacity, doing all that they could with what they had (excellent stewardship).  These small communities organized and defined themselves around gifts, skills, assets and a clearly focused mission.  The smallest was six people, the largest 70, none meeting our current secular criteria of “successful.”  Yet, their impact was not measured in double, triple or quadruple digits, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands.  One Texas group — all former church-goers — feeds and clothes over 25,000 per year.  As Madeline K., one of the directors of their efforts told me, “My old church could never have done this, even with the 700+ members we had, because of all the red tape and hoops to jump through.  I tried for almost twenty years to run a feeding program in the church.  I finally got fed up, found some friends that shared my commitment, and we just started out on our own.  And anyone who complains that we are missing the fellowship that only church can provide just isn’t paying attention.  We pray and sing and talk God more than I ever did at church.  We gave up Paul’s church for Jesus’ church, is all.”  In Baltimore, 30 doctors, nurses, healthcare providers and community residents provide clinic care to the city poor.  They hold prayer meetings, Bible studies, offer faith-based counseling, and engage in global health-related mission work.  These thirty disciples have raised over $35 million for their ministries.  They were rejected by every mainline and independent church for miles around due to liability concerns — so they set out on their own.  I know of at least fifty house churches in no less than thirty states that are engaged in life-giving, life-transforming mission and ministry — freed from what they refer to as the “shackles” of organized religion.  Pound for pound and person for person, these small independent Christian contractors put even our largest, most powerful churches to shame.  They don’t spend their money on buildings, but on lives.  They don’t bog everything down in committees and structures, but affirm and expand everything through healthy relationships.  In a word, they define “vital” in a way that our United Methodist leadership can’t even imagine.

The bottom line in each of these cases is that the people took authority granted them by God rather than an institution.  And they are not members of “the lunatic fringe,” but are those prepared by the mainstream for something more, something bigger, something better.  Of particular note is that they outgrew the current institution, so committed to low expectations, complacency, passive attendance, and conditional engagement (many of the “vitality” factors being promoted within our denomination).  People actually convicted of radical discipleship find The United Methodist Church an uncomfortable place to be.  Scott T. sums it up when he says, “I got a hint at what being a Christian meant at [XYZ] United Methodist Church; but I learned what it meant to BE a Christian only by leaving the church.”  What an indictment, and were it a representation of an insignificant segment, it might be dismissable.  But this is one of the fastest growing segments of Christian believers in the US — deeply engaged Christians, living their faith in the world, practicing spiritual disciplines and intentionally distancing themselves from the institutional church they view as no longer relevant or helpful.  Any institution more concerned with its own preservation and survival than its potential impact on the world has little or no interest for a growing number of Christian disciples.

When I shared this information in the mid-2000s, I was told by my higher-ups not to spread this around — it made us look bad.  Bishops and conference leaders vehemently argued with these findings, defensively circling the ecclesial wagons to maintain that WE were doing it right and anyone who disagreed with us was WRONG.  Almost a decade later, the evidence is mounting, and what was merely a trend then is now becoming a fixture of current reality.  But what are the leaders of our denomination doing?  Trying to figure out how to get less engaged, less committed, less motivated people to want to join the institutional church.  What an interesting strategy!

We have an amazing opportunity to partner with people who might teach us a new kind of church (or, more accurately, remind us of the value of a very old kind of church).  Essentially, there is one key difference between these emerging communities and our traditional churches: performance.  The fringe communities of faith have a very simple metric for vitality — active involvement and engagement.  Disciples can only be proven by their fruit.  If you believe, you can be a very passive Christian.  If you attend, you can be a somewhat less passive Christian.  Regular participation in personal acts of devotion — prayer, Bible study, reflection, fasting — can move one to a nominal level of engagement — one that can be enhanced by fellowship, group involvement, and supporting the work of others.  But discipleship — and by extension, vitality — requires sacrifice, commitment, outreach and connection with those outside the community of faith.  There is no such thing as passive, low-commitment discipleship.  Attending worship once in a while does not make one a disciple.  Anyone who makes worship attendance, small group participation, tossing money in a plate, and paying other people to do ministry FOR us is promoting a nasty form of ignorance, one that undermines the basic tenets of our faith.  They are defining vitality by the lowest common denominators, further alienating those who seek radical discipleship from the institutional church.

It is time to raise our standards — at least to the level of those outside the church who are living as disciples committed to transforming the world for the better.  We’re being shown how it is done.  All we have to do is come down off our lofty perch and admit that redefining “vitality” in terms of our own poor performance will never get us where God wants us to be.

23 replies

  1. Thank you for rhe article. It resonates with me and things mentioned have contributed to my decision to retire. I so want to be serving God with vitality and enthusiasm and am looking for like minded people. I will be going on mission trip in the fall…to serve with other spiritual, Christ followers. I’m sure God will send other opportunites my way in the future. Thanks again for the article and for all those who replied. I will leave it with the few people in my local church who are excited.

  2. This is exactly what I’ve been doing over the last year and a half since leaving the United Methodist Church as a pastor and precisely the reasons I did so. Two of the families who worship with us in my home come from what is regarded as one of the Missouri Conference’s fastest growing and successful churches. They left mainly because they felt a huge disconnect between their call to be a disciple according to their gifts and how that church was a poor steward of those gifts.

    At Simple Church, we have so few folks (about twelve) that we NEED everyone’s gifts. And since no one gets payed to be the professional Christian, no one individual nor no one’s gifts are seen as more important as another.

  3. Good thoughts, Dan. Are those who have withdrawn from “institutional” church part of the group calling themselves “nones?” If so, that could be part of why the “nones” are a growing group.

    As we look at our denominational statistics, it seems that we don’t (for the most part) measure the kinds of activities that you describe as indicators of vitality. Do you believe that there is any way to objectively measure vital church behaviors?

    • Tom,
      I know we can shift our metrics from quantitative to qualitative because I have seen it done well. When I did my research for Vital Signs, I found a number of churches (1-in-11 of the sample of 1,100 churches I surveyed and visited) who could tell not only how many people were showing up on a Sunday, but what percentage of the active participants were engaged in hands-on ministry within and beyond the congregation. They had processes and tools to evaluate the impact that worship has on people, to engage people in reflection on the ways they were growing in their faith, to measure how people were developing both knowledge and skills in a variety of areas, and ways to discern and develop gifts for ministry. It is more time intensive and requires a greater level of engagement and interaction, but it really is no harder than counting bodies and dollar bills. I was with a small congregation not long ago in Iowa (not UM) where three people were learning Spanish so they could share in ministry in a bi-cultural setting. After almost a year together, one preached her first sermon in Spanish, one read scripture in Spanish, and another led prayer in Spanish. The youngest of these three is 63 years old, and they come from a “dying church” (26 members in 2009, 18 members this year). I rarely find this level of spirit, servanthood or vitality in much larger churches that are featured in Interpreter magazine. The sad fact is, we measure what we treasure. Size and dollars are our drivers right now, so we often overlook the small acts as insignificant and irrelevant. Hopefully, we will find creative ways to balance quality with quantity, and not perpetuate this myth that churches under 100 are somehow a problem to be solved.

      • Could you expand a bit on what sort of tools and processes you found that made a difference in the 1-in-11 churches? Not looking for easy answers, but interested to know how others have approached this challenge.

      • There were fifteen key criteria that differed in “vital” churches from less than vital congregations:
        1) sense of identity — almost every person, from the third grade Sunday schooler to the 80+ year old grandma to the custodian to the hand bell director could explain in clear concise terms the guiding values, priorities, hopes and vision of the congregation — the people had a widely shared answer to the quest “who are we?”
        2) shared clarity of purpose — people know what the missional goals and priorities are, the expectations for every member and participant, and the metrics by which the effectiveness of the ministry will be evaluated.
        3) focus of the congregation — vital churches excel in one or two key areas, and these ministries are defining for the whole congregation. There are few passive spectators in vital congregations — the vast majority (80-90%) are actively engaged in doing some form of ministry. Very few sit on the sidelines.
        4) awareness and understanding of God’s will/vision for the church — discernment, clarity, understanding and concensus are “normal” characteristics in healthy churches; there isn’t a lot of disagreement or debate over what the church ought to be doing (those who are on board commit, those who deeply disagree find a church more suited to their liking).
        5) governing and guiding values — the “what we belive,” “why they are important,” and “how do we align beliefs and behaviors” are ongoing conversations — vitually no one is fuzzy about what the church believes, stands for, commits to or aligns with.
        6) impact awareness — vital churches are very clear about the impact and value of their ministries; leaders can very clearly report what difference each of the ministries and programs make on individual lives and the overall health of the congregation and community.
        7) leadership — there is an intentional process of discerning gifts, cultivating skills and competencies, preparing for succession, engaging new people in decision making and spreading both responsibility and authority around. Laity are empowered, and they are equipped to live their gifts and abilties in the community beyond the congregation.
        8) the role of the appointed pastor — in our healthiest churches you really can’t tell who the pastor is, because so many empowered lay leaders share in the ongoing ministry and mission. Healthy churches are “pastor-proofed” — they remain strong through pastoral change because the vision, energy, authority, and passion rest within the congregation, not within the appointed leader. Those pastors who truly empower leave the church stronger when they depart than it was when they were there.
        9) programmatic design — in vital churches form follows function; program is designed and aligned to enable the congregation to fulfill its sense of mission and to achieve its missional goals and priorities. Programs are never offered simply because “we’re a church and that’s what churches do.” Program is designed to produce specific, concrete, measurable, value-driven outcomes.
        10) organizational structure — again, form follows function; some of our healthiest churches defy convention by not filling in the blanks on charge conference nomination forms, not worry about reporting bigger numbers, not conforming totally to the book of Discipline — however, our healthiest churches are also our most connectional, and they NEVER hid their UM identity with a foofy name, or acted congregationally, or defied the connectional system to “take their pastor,” — healthy UM churches are Methodist (EUB) through and through.
        11) money — money is talked about opening, honestly, and without apology. Every person is expected to invest in vital, thriving ministry and there simply isn’t time to waste talking about scarcity or penny pinching. Apportionments are a high priority (because mission is such a high value) and generally there is no need to use gimmicks or campaigns to fund budgets. In fact, budgets are rarely discussed — ministry is the focus.
        12) the role of worship in the life of the congregation — worship is essential and ubiquitous in healthy churches. People don’t “do” worship; they don’t “attend” worship — when people gather in vital churches they engage together in worshipful acts — they pray, they sing, they share scripture, they encourage each other, they join gifts to serve others. Worship is the environment in which vitality is born.
        13) the role of education — all disciples are lifelong learners; all those who enter UM churches are guided by our mission, thus all who enter UM churches are to be lifelong learners. People who don’t want this will not be happy in a vital church; they will need to go somewhere with much lower expectations and standards. In our healhtiest churches, more people are in small groups and classes than are in the sanctuary for prepared worship.
        14) the congregation’s relationship to the community — our healthiest churches are not building more buildings, in fact, they spend only a small portion of their time in the church facility. I found churches that conducted 70% of their programs and services away from the church building. The church is not a place for the community to visit; the church is the people of the congregation moving out into the world.
        15) the congregation’s relationship to the connectional system — truly engaged, vital Christians are as active in the congregations of other churches and denominations (and faiths) as they are their own. They teach, and preach, and serve in community, at the district and regional level, throughout their conference, across the denomination and around the world. Their congregation is merely one outlet of the larger church to which they belong. They are proud of the amazing work done through the larger church system. They are guided by synergy — a keen awareness that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

        It goes without saying, these things don’t happen by accident, but only by careful design. It is also apparent that a single, ordained, appointed leader can’t make this happen, either. It takes a community more committed to the common good than any one individual agenda. It is hard, labor intensive, and it takes time, but it does happen (and is happening). If you can scrape up a copy of my book Vital Signs, I go into much more detail.

  4. Thank you, Dan, for all that you have said. The one metric is faithful discipleship, which is always kenotic. And when people are living as faithful disciples there isn’t much time or interest in measuring ourselves for a metrics chart.

  5. Dan, wow. Serious question. Why should anyone seek ordination in the UMC given the realities you see? Should those interested in discipleship find it elsewhere?

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