For many years, going back to the Council of Bishop’s “Vital Congregations” initiative (a project I worked on back in pre-1996 UMCom days), the United Methodist Church has talked quite a bit about developing and promoting “vital” congregations. The language of congregational vitality has been on the tips of our tongues as we wring our hands about the numerical decline of the denomination. So it is no surprise that the Council of Bishops recent Call to Action report draws upon that language in the desire to address the “…overarching conclusion that the denomination is experiencing a ‘creeping crisis’ of relevance…” (p. 25). The report goes on to offer four Key Drivers of Vitality as the answer to addressing the crisis, focusing on what has seemed to work in other United Methodist congregations that are identified as “vital.”
The difficulty in the report from my perspective is the illusive definition of what vitality is. And as I’ve scanned the report, the committee spent a great deal of time addressing these characteristics that drive vitality without offering much insight as to what a vital church looks like. However, there is in fact a definition of vitality contained in the report. It is located in a parenthetical statement six chapters in, which seems odd given that it is the desire for congregations to grow in vitality that seems to drive the report. And yet this definition may indeed be the most helpful statement in the entire report:
…vitality is the dynamic forward leaning state of engagement that connects people to God, each other, and the world in profound ways… (Call to Action Report p. 26)
As I consider this statement, it occurs to me that in fact an entire chapter of the report could have, and perhaps should have, pulled this definition apart, deconstructing it to truly think about the nature of the church and how our congregations, systems, and structures address this understanding of congregational vitality. And yet, instead the Steering Committee fails (from my perspective) to address this definition in significant ways, instead using “available and quantifiable” (p. 39) metrics as primary indicators of vitality, a set of metrics that in my opinion isn’t especially different from the metrics we have been using for the past 40 years. These include worship attendance as a percentage of membership; total membership; children, youth, and young adult participation; professions of faith, and individual and congregational giving.
The problem with these traditional metrics is that they leave out significant factors that are more connected to the stated definition of vitality but difficult to measure, requiring time and attention for adequate evaluation. In essence, the Steering Committee took the easy way out, attempting to work quickly rather than taking the time and resources needed to better understand congregational vitality as described above. That’s understandable at some level, but it also leads to conclusions that may be short sighted and fail to appreciate the unique circumstances that lead to vitality.
In example, notice that there are no metrics on the prayer life of a congregation. As I have read studies of growing and thriving congregations in other contexts I have learned that these congregations are often rooted in prayer, that prayer is seen as the center of their communal life together, and that members both pray for the church individually and as importantly communally. It is this embracing of prayer as a core spiritual practice that leads these congregations lean forward, and in encouraging prayer people are more deeply connected to God, each other, and the world. Yet, none of the metrics in the study in fact address the prayer life of “vital” congregations, and how congregational leaders work to root prayer at the center of congregational practice.
Or take mission activity for example. The congregation that I currently serve went through a period of dryness in which some church leaders were in a survival mode rather than experiencing vitality. Then, through the witness of a dear saint, the congregation began to catch a vision for ministry with children in the community. They started an afterschool tutoring program in a partnership with the local elementary school, leading to many members becoming engaged in ministry with children, leading to an increase of children in the worshipping life of the congregation. This congregation is starting to lean forward and become more engaged with God, one another, and our community not through having lots of small groups (we don’t) or having a dynamic preacher (I’m not) but through engagement with the needs of the world and offer God’s love in response to those needs. We don’t yet fully conform to the definition of vital, but there is hope for the future.
Developing metrics for these types of activities aren’t difficult, but they generally take time and observation and can’t be culled from year end report data. They involve asking questions and taking time to listen – activities that take time and involve more commitment than most are truly willing to give. They require patience, understanding that quick and cheap doesn’t always mean accurate.
The question that I am left with ultimately is if we are doomed to fail whenever we try to quantify a nebulous descriptor such as congregational vitality. In my experience through the years there is an “it” factor to congregational vitality – I can’t fully explain “it” but I know “it” when I see it. There are congregations I’ve visited in the past that radiated vitality when I walked on the property, but rarely was it connected to a particular worship style, the dynamism of the pastor, and the programs offered. These congregations simply had an undefinable sense of life and energy, a passion for life together and life in the world, in which the members truly believed that special things were at work simply through their act of gathering. They had “it” even though I doubt that many there could fully define what “it” was.
A couple of summers ago I found myself with a Sunday off without the kids and decided to check out a local United Methodist church plant that was growing rapidly to see if I might be able to get some insight about why they were thriving and in the hope that some of it might rub off. Like lots of new church plants, they met in a local school building, and I crept in under cover, trying to approach the congregation as if I was just any other guy off the street, however expecting to see new and exciting things. However, what I experienced was pretty normal. It was a contemporary service, and the band was good but not particularly any different from a hundred other worship bands I’ve experienced. The worship was relevant, but not especially creative. The preacher (a friend) was engaging and I enjoyed the sermon, but I wasn’t blown away. It was a good service, one that connected me to God, but nothing that would define this congregation any differently than several other congregations in the area.
But what they did have, their source of congregational vitality, was an absolute commitment by all that God was engaged in their life together, and that life was connecting them to God, one another, and the world. There was a belief that significant things were happening, and that belief created a passion and energy that was infectious. People in the community could see this commitment, and want to be a part of something special, thus leading to growth, leading to a belief that God was at work in their midst, leading to passion, leading to growth . . . and the cycle continues.
The danger we face with research like that found in the Call to Action report is that we think that congregational vitality can be rooted in data, allowing us to draw reasonable and logical conclusions why congregations are “vital.” And yet, the Holy Spirit is rarely logical, and there are all sorts of examples of thriving and amazing congregations for which there is no logical reason for their success. It’s those examples that may indeed throw off the conclusions of the Call to Action report, and lead us to chase after rabbits that have little to do with congregational vitality.