A vital congregation is ... HOPE

What makes a congregation vital?

That question is receiving critical attention across the denomination as United Methodist churches and conferences strive to reverse years of declining membership and fulfill their mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

While the responses may vary, leaders across the connection say what happens outside the church's walls is an integral part of the answer.

The Rev. Rachel Birkahn-Rommelfanger, senior pastor at Berry United Methodist Church in Chicago and a member of the denomination's Connectional Table, says engagement in the community through "mission, service and justice" is a clear indicator of health.

"A vital church knows about what is happening at schools, libraries, at businesses, and with folks who live down the street," she says. The evidence of that is "what people pray about, what is printed in the bulletin or on the bulletin boards."

Other clues? Children and families regularly involved in the life of the church and people actively participating in worship. Vital churches also have members who want to stay after church services and visit with each other.

"When everyone runs out the door, it doesn't feel vital," Birkahn-Rommelfanger says. "But when folks stay to talk to new people and each other, you can feel the energy."

Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce Ough says vital churches in his conferences are living out three of Jesus' greatest commands: to grow in loving God and their neighbors (the Great Commandment), to reach new people (the Great Commission) and to heal a broken world (the Great Call from Luke 4).

Ough is also chair of the Connectional Table. He says churches are using denominational criteria to assess vitality, but they are beginning to pay greater attention to the kinds of qualitative measures Birkahn-Rommelfanger notes — behavioral indicators not related to statistics.

That is key, says the Rev. Marc Brown, director of connectional ministries in the Virginia Annual Conference.

Assessing a church's vitality based on specific indicators of health and effectiveness is important, he says, but the conversation should begin "with a focus on the congregational life in which the seeds of vitality are being planted."

That means considering several core questions.

  • Is the congregation rich in faith, hope and love?
  • Is that faith rooted in the past or "future resurrection possibilities"?
  • Is the church's ministry meeting the needs of the community?
  • Is the congregation drawing people to God through its love for Christ?

"There is a richer conversation to be had — a conversation about Christian vitality that leads to a deeper understanding of congregational vitality," Brown says. "When this vital conversation is faithfully held, the numbers take care of themselves."

The right questions

That richer conversation began to take place across the denomination in late 2009 when the Council of Bishops called for an in-depth study of the church's health and future ability to fulfill its mission. The Vital Congregations Initiative launched in 2011 as a result.

"We've put a focus on congregational vitality that helps us see that there is some vitality," says the Rev. Tim Bias, general secretary of the denomination's Discipleship Ministries (General Board of Discipleship). "When we were just recording the statistics, we weren't looking for it. Now we're actually looking for it."

Discipleship Ministries, the Connectional Table and other denominational bodies are leading the initiative, which provides resources and tools that help churches and conferences become more vital in their mission to make disciples. It is based on an idea of vitality that goes beyond offering-plate giving and membership numbers. Instead, it asks faith communities to increase their vitality by setting goals in five areas: average worship attendance, professions of faith, small-group participation, missional engagement and giving.

For the first time, vital congregations are defined. They are Spirit-filled communities of believers that welcome all people, make and mature disciples of Jesus Christ, and serve like Christ through justice and mercy ministries. They also have inviting and inspiring worship; engaged disciples in mission and outreach; gifted, empowered and equipped lay leadership; effective, equipped and inspired clergy leadership; small-group ministries; and strong children's and youth ministries.

"In essence, these are congregations with a clear purpose that grows their disciples' faith and leadership and connects with the community through ministry that is important and meaningful to the people in the community," says New Jersey Area Bishop John R. Schol, one of the initiative's leaders.

The emphasis on vitality was needed, he says, because declining membership meant fewer disciples engaged in the church and community, weakening the mission to make disciples.

"We are committed to a God-sized vision for the church and our mission," Schol says. "We want to be able to respond to all that God is calling us to be for the world. We recognized our diminishing capacity would ultimately impact how God could use us in the world."

All about the process

The key to fulfilling that God-sized mission, Bias says, is Paragraph 122 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, "The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission."

It is a how-to guide for vitality and the basis for the Vital Congregations Initiative, with four imperatives at its core: hospitality, opportunity, purpose and engagement.

"If you go through Paragraph 122, the first part is that you proclaim that you're welcoming, receiving people. That's hospitality," Bias says. "The opportunity is that you are, as Wesley would say, offering Christ. It says that you're inviting people into the community through baptism."

The third element is purpose — achieved by engaging people in small groups so they can grow and live as Christians. The paragraph then instructs churches to "send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as Christ" and offers a list of things people can do — feed the hungry and care for the stranger. That is engagement in the community.

Those components form an acronym for HOPE, Bias says. "Where churches are offering hope or engaging in hope, they are places of vitality because they are using the process of making disciples in a Wesleyan way."

Bias says another piece of the vitality puzzle is the denomination's four areas of focus: developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world, creating new places for people by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones, engaging in ministry with the poor and combating diseases of poverty by improving global health.

Vital congregations produce one or all of those areas of focus, Bias says. The Vital Congregations metrics measure those outcomes, and Paragraph 122 is the process by which they are achieved.

"Vital congregations helps us make disciples for the transformation of the world," he says. "How do we know we're transforming the world? Through the results that come from those four areas."

Underpinning it all is the mission to make disciples.

"If we want principled leaders in the church, we have to make disciples who become leaders," Bias says. "If we want new places for new people, we have to make disciples who will help those churches be the new places for people or revitalized so people can find their way in. If we actually want to make a difference in the world around global health, we have to make disciples who are willing to make the sacrifices to make that happen."

Hope for the church

Schol is optimistic about the church's future disciple-making ability.

"God has blessed us with strong progress in the last three years," Schol says. "We have doubled the number of highly vital congregations, which is a sign of the commitment and creativity of clergy and lay leadership in the congregations, conferences and the general church. ... As we humble ourselves before God, serve together, grow the faith of our laity and engage in justice and mercy ministries in the community, we will continue to grow our vitality."

Bias agrees. He is convinced the world will be different in 10 years because of The United Methodist Church.

"It's not about program; it's not about agencies," he says. "It's about being focused on a living God that we know in Jesus Christ so we do what God has created us to do. For me, I wouldn't be doing what I do now if I didn't believe that. I think we're on the right track."

Tita Parham is a communications consultant, writer and editor based in Apopka, Fla.