This past Thursday I had the privilege of attending a special gather of the General and Jurisdictional Conference Delegations of the Tennessee and Memphis Annual Conferences in which they received presentations from a variety of agencies and individuals on pending legislation coming to Annual Conference. As a part of that event, I was able to listen in on a debate between a member of the Interim Operations Team (IOT) arguing for the restructuring proposals, and a retired church leader who has been critical of those proposals. Both clearly loved the church and were trying to be faithful to their understanding of who we are called to be, while also maintaining differing visions of how the mission of the church is to best be carried out.
During the course of that conversation, the IOT member referred repeatedly to the mandate to focus on vital congregations, which was to be expected. I was also not surprised to hear him define church vitality by describing the drivers of vitality: lots of small groups, empowered and motivated lay leadership, effective pastoral leadership, multiple expressions of worship, and giving to mission. For this person the presence of those practices represent the definition of vitality, the points of identity by which one can know whether a church is vital or not. Thus, all the proposals that followed were put into place to facilitate the creation of these practices universally throughout the church.
I will not disagree that these practices (which frankly have been talked about in church growth and leadership literature for the past 40 years) certainly contribute to church vitality. I would even agree for the most part with the statement at www.umvitalcongregations.org that vital congregations generally have one or more of those practices in their ministry. But to talk about these practices is not a definition of vitality. They describe some of what vital congregations do and offer some vision of what vital congregations look like, but they say little about the things that define who vital congregations are.
What is missing, of course, is a true definition of church vitality that provides the foundations upon which the above practices have meaning. The practices are all about doing, but what is discussed less often are the values of these congregations, values which provide meaning and purpose to the practices.
Tonight I stumbled upon a favorite movie on Netflix that I hadn’t seen in some time. Produced back when I was in college, “Leap of Faith” features Steve Martin as a crooked faith healer praying upon the unsuspecting folks of Dustwater, Kansas. The movie portrays an operation that was top of the line for traveling tent revivals, with the best choir and technology that money could buy. And as Martin admits, his group puts on a good show, whipping folks up into a frenzy filled with tons of energy and excitement. However it was all a fraud, a scam, with no positive values driving the ministry. And when REALLY shows up and a miracle REALLY happens, everything crumbles for the underlying values of this ministry were so shabby that the presence of the Spirit was beyond the capability of the preacher to handle.
My fear about suggesting that the practices of existing vital congregations represent the defining characteristics of those congregations to be duplicated by all fails to recognize that in every single church that was studied, there was a strong underlying foundation of values out of which those practices grew. Since I didn’t carry out the study in all the churches examined I can’t fully say what that values are, but the definition of church vitality as the “…dynamic, forward leaning state of engagement that leads people to connect to God, each other, and the world in profound ways…” from the Call to Action report offers some clues. I would dare to say that most of the churches studied absolutely believed that Christianity is best learned about and practiced in community settings, and that one of the best ways to build engagement with God’s call on us is through small groups. I would guess that there is a valuing of sharing the Gospel, that is, telling the story of Jesus in creative and effective ways that connect to people where they are, and engage their hearts and minds. Their connection to the gospel and their immersion in the example of Jesus leads them to recognize that call to servant leadership, thus focusing on the empowerment of the laity. Beneath the practices lie values, and these values must be clearly defined to bring forth true vitality.
Having said that, I must confess that I am a person who has often said that sometimes we have to practice our way into a set of beliefs. It is possible that the experience of a certain set of practices will form a community into a particular value system. However I think it’s more effective to begin with values which then have a a greater influence on what practices are necessary and how those practices are lived out.
I suppose there is more to say on this, but I’m plum tuckered out.