How 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.