Vital Churches Share Common Characteristics

August 18, 2011

A UMNS Feature
By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*

Bishop John R. Schol shepherds the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference, and he is always on the lookout for standout congregations. As team leader of the Vital Congregations initiative, he rattles off the description with ease.
A vital congregation, he explains, has five things:
  • Inviting and inspiring worship
  • Engaged disciples in mission and outreach
  • Gifted, equipped, and empowered lay leadership
  • Effective, equipped, and inspired clergy leadership
  • Small groups and strong children's programs and youth ministry
"While all congregations have some aspect of vitality," he adds, "highly vital congregations grow over time, engage more people in ministry, and are more generous in giving to mission."
He offers four examples in his Conference.
Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., has a significant young adult worshipping community, one of the highest numbers of professions of faith in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, and one of the strongest mission programs in United Methodism – and it is growing.
Another congregation in the U.S. capital, Brighter Day United Methodist Church, engaged 228 disciples – more than half the congregation – in Bible study. The congregation also has inspiring worship and engages in significant mission in the community and in Africa.
Mount Carmel United Methodist Church in Frederick, Maryland, has doubled worship, recently baptized 12 youth and adults, and is engaged in mission.
And, in Bel Air, Maryland, Mount Zion United Methodist Church has a significant small-group ministry, is working to end homelessness in the county, and has grown from 35 to more than 700 in worship.
Status quo is not the answer
Turning "average congregations" into vital congregations cannot happen overnight, Schol cautions. And he encourages United Methodists to address what he terms "adaptive spiritual challenges."
One challenge is "calling and developing more 'turnaround' spiritual leaders." A turnaround leader, he notes, casts a meaningful vision for a congregation and leads the congregation toward the vision. In the end, "the congregation connects with the people in the community, increases making new disciples and engaging them in mission, and reverses decline within the congregation."
Developing greater trust at all levels of the Church is yet another challenge, along with embracing metrics, setting goals, and being willing to be accountable for faithfulness and fruitfulness.
And making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world does not mean maintaining the status quo, Schol contends. It requires "retooling and learning how to connect with the nominally- and non-religious people in our communities, and eliminating anything that inhibits the flow of resources to congregations that are deeply committed to becoming more vital."
He admits there is no one way to overcome this challenge.
"In fact," he says, "we are encouraging congregations to be adventuresome and (to) experiment with ministries to reach people in their communities." The most popular types of ministries attracting newcomers are mission projects and small-group ministries focused on addictions.
"New people are also attracted to authenticity," he says. "People want real answers from real people, not platitudes from play-it-safe congregations."
Turn up the heat
Inspiring worship moves people to make a commitment to Christ or to engage in ministry and mission. It can take many forms and styles. "It leads people to a decision and invites people to make a decision," Schol says. "These worship services are bathed in prayer, (require) thoughtful planning, and focus on how to move someone's heart."
He offers examples. "A story can be inspiring, a testimony of a changed life can be inspiring, a charismatic preacher can be inspiring, (and) a worshipful song can be inspiring."
There is no one way or "best way" to nurture effective lay or clergy leadership.
"Effective leaders," says Schol, "are born out of great challenges that test their souls and their leadership. These challenges have a way of sifting average leaders and great leaders.
"Great leaders are not afraid of challenges or failing. They recognize they will learn something and move on. Average leaders play it safe." Turning up the heat is the best way to create more effective and great leaders, he says.
"Give them a challenge," Schol advises. He acknowledges the church will lose some average leaders who will buckle under the weight of a significant or hard challenge.
"Today," he says, "we serve in an urgent time that calls for great leadership. We nurture leaders, not by taking the challenge away, but by walking with people and letting them know it is OK to fail."
Asked the most unusual small group he could recall and what made it so, Schol cited "Used to Be Cool Moms," a club for mothers of teens. He also mentioned the Bible Fight Club, a Bible study in a Pittsburgh tattoo parlor (photo below).
"It is a no-holds-barred Bible study in which any question may be asked and any answer challenged."
'The greatest gift … is lessons learned'
Part of becoming a vital congregation is evaluating and assessing current church health. Schol anticipates some resistance.
The real question, however, is, "What will we learn and how will it shape our life together?"
"Resistance is neither bad nor good," he says. "It is an expression that two different ideas have difficulty living in the same space. Our first response to resisters should be, 'What do you want us to know? What are we missing?'
"The church needs to take appropriate steps to address good questions and normal behaviors of resistance to new ideas. But it should never stop moving forward. Change means taking risks, and even getting it wrong." Schol says we should ask: "What have we learned from the change? What will we continue doing? What will we stop doing? And what will we modify?"
The greatest gift we can give to the future Church is lessons we have learned, he says.
"We will also provide a gift to the future Church of Jesus Christ if we rekindle a spirit of saving souls, [of] reaching the nominally- and non-religious with the Gospel so that it captures their hearts and imaginations."
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.
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