What is Congregational Vitality?

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.

9 thoughts on “What is Congregational Vitality?

  1. It would not surprise me to see more Annual Conferences using the Dashboard system that North Alabama uses and basing a lot of “vitality” on those numbers.

  2. As a footnote to this article, please hear that I am not saying that small groups are not important (they are) and it is my hope to increase the number of small group opportunities at OHUMC. Likewise, I am not saying that preaching isn’t important (it is) and I take seriously the act of preaching, holding to the notion given to my by my New Testament professor William Lane that “…it is a sin to make the Bible boring!” But let’s not think that there are not other drivers of vitality, drivers that simply failed to be captured in the specified metrics.

  3. It seems to me that the focus on “Congregational vitality” completely misses the mark. The problem with this is that it focus our attention in the wrong place. It puts the congregation at the center of our concern, energy, and resources. This will distract the church from its true purpose: mission. We should be less concerned with congregational vitality and much more concerned with missional vitality. If we re-focus our energy and resources upon building missional vitality then healthy congregational vitality with follow. When we focus on mission we put our attention in the proper place, which is engaging the world where Christ is at working preparing this world for the coming reign of God.

    Rather than focus on the metrics recommended in the CTA report perhaps we need to look at what difference a congregation is making in the life of its neighborhood/town. How is the existence of that congregation improving the quality of life for the people who live in that neighborhood or town? How are the members of the congregation in relationship with persons and families who are poor, unemployed, homeless, sick, and marginalized? How is the congregation good news to the poor? How is the life and ministry of the congregation a witness for Jesus Christ in the world?

    If such measures of missional vitality were expected of each congregation then, it seems to me, prayer, faithful worship, diverse small groups, intentional faith formation, etc. must necessarily be incorporated into the congregation’s life.

    1. Agreed, with the understanding that the missional imperative you mention must be rooted in local congregations rather than imposed from on high. The metrics you describe (which I agree with wholeheartedly) represent congregational reactions and engagement with a missional purpose rather than a denominational mandate. In essence, while I fully support a poorly maintained and underutilized connectional system, ministry at its core is based in the unique needs of the local context, so any attempts to define universal goals for mission miss the mark. The difficulty is that evaluating ministry according to the metrics above requires a different skill set and prioritization of time for D.S’s than what has been expected in the past, something I don’t see changing in the light of D.S.’s who barely want to give the time needed to hold an effective Charge Conference.

  4. Jay, as the post on my blog suggests, I think all of us who have been reading this report as a research and argument piece have misunderstood its purpose. As your questions indicate, the report is meant to rally the troops and organize effort. It is not an invitation to discussion or even an attempt to persuade people.

    It is an action plan. I would wager (if I weren’t a Methodist) that the decisions about vital congregations and other big pieces were already in place before Towers Watson and Apex started their work – at least as general convictions if not concrete policies.

    1. Agreed. The danger is that the assumptions and dangers were made by a group of persons whose major context of understanding vitality is rooted in large congregations, with little remembrance and connection to those of us trying to be faithful in smaller settings. Understand that more often than not the folks who get elected to the episcopacy (at least in the Southeast) are from large membership congregations. Combine that with a task force that is weighted with folks from those contexts and one quickly gets a set of assumptions in search of research to support them.

  5. Jay,

    It seems all this hand wringing about the report forgets one thing. If we cant place butts in seats who open checkbooks, we are not long for this world. Spiritualize it away all you want, but the old tired notion referencing unmeasurables is a transparent attempt to avoid accountability. If church leaders cannot preach and lead in such a way as to increase attendance and giving, they should be fired. It is really not that difficult.

  6. There is obviously a tension between that which is quantifiable and that which is spiritual. Although, I would argue that more often than not, powerful spiritual activities lead to quantifiable results. I would have to agree with Carlos’ comment that in many cases those who protest the loudest simply wish to avoid any sort of accountability — reminds me of the saying that “Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

    In the Mississippi Annual Conference our “A2” process identifies healthy churches as those that are: (1) Growing both numerically and spiritually; (2) Living in community and experiencing low levels of conflict; (3) possessing adequate resources for ministry (people, spiritual gifts, financial contributions, etc.); and, (4) providing significant impact for the community and connection of the Body of Christ through service and mission. (based on Acts 2:42-47) To make an “assessment” of health thus defined we identified 12 “Indicators” for churches to use in their assessment process. These indicators utilize characteristics that promote general health among congregations. However, they do not, in all circumstances, provide the nuance for particular ministries within a congregation. After completing the assessment and computing a “score” discernment comes in (through outside help) to balance the effort.

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