Call to Action: Defining, Creating Vitality

September 08, 2011

Churches Respond to the Call to Action

By Melissa Hinnen
Information Officer, GBGM
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10
DALLAS, Texas—The conference room at the Vital Congregation Intensive at the 2011 School of Congregational Development was filled with some 30 people eager to discuss the denomination's new "Call to Action," and the implications for their congregations. John Southwick, Jeff Stiggins, Marc Brown, and Michael Roberts led the group through two 1.5-hour sessions. They helped define what it means to be a vital congregation, provided models for developing vital congregations, and offered strategies for using the Call to Action as a building block for developing Christ-centered church communities.
Initially, there was a sense of anxiety from participants who were looking for opportunities in a plan that – on the surface – to many, seemed unrealistic. One pastor commented, "My job is to connect and draw people into mission. This plan feels like there is a lack of's all about metrics and not about ministry."
Others expressed concern that their congregations don't believe the Church is in decline and do not see the need to change and work for transformation and renewal. The session leaders worked with the group and discussed different ways to address the concerns while developing strategies.
What Is a Vital Congregation?
Framing the definition of what it means to be a vital congregation around John 10:10, Southwick suggested that the Church should function "as more than just 'not dead'.... Being vital means having zoe [in ancient Greek, life] and living abundantly as a follower of Jesus."
While the Call to Action does not define vitality, it assumes that a vital congregation is living out the mission of The United Methodist Church to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Roberts pointed to The Book of Discipline par. 122 for "The Process for Carrying out our Mission":
We make disciples as we:
  • proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ; 
  • lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ; 
  • nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley's Christian conferencing; 
  • send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and 
  • continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ.
Through this process, there is a flow of action. Says Roberts, "each point has an action...this spells zoe...this is vital." He reminded the group that "proclaiming the gospel is not a program" and that to be fruitful in ministry, there must be a culture of welcoming everyone who comes through the doors of the church in a way that will lead them to commit their lives to Christ. It is not enough, according to Roberts, to simply have a "pre-fab Sunday school program" if it doesn't provide an authentic nurturing environment that sends people into the world to live lovingly and justly as the community of the body of Christ.
Exploring the Four Key Drivers
According to the Call to Action steering committee, there are four drivers of vital congregations:
  • Effective pastoral leadership, including aspects of management, vision, and inspiration; 
  • Multiple small groups* and programs for children and youth; 
  • Mix of traditional and contemporary worship services; and 
  • High percentages of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles. 
The presenters explored how to build on each of these drivers in ways that are Christ-centered and take into account the realities and culture of individual congregations.
Pointing to Philippians 2:1-4 as a snapshot of vitality, Brown asserted that the Call to Action encourages congregations to be Christ-like in how the "rubber meets the road" when looking at how to change the culture of the mission field. Particularly for pastors, the Call to Action is an invitation to be faithful in equipping laity, connecting their lives to a larger biblical story of faith, and empowering them to move forward with vision and inspiration.
Brown encouraged pastors to be intentional in their preparation for preaching. "Pastoral leadership has the mind of Christ," said Brown. "Take the authority to create a God-sized vision for your congregation.... Ask yourself if you have more energy when you leave worship than when you arrived."
Stiggins explained that a mix of traditional and contemporary worship choices is best for congregations with more than 350 people (but not necessarily for those with smaller congregations), and emphasized that the choices must be relevant to the people being served. For all congregations, according to Stiggins, bringing secular realities together with God's story will have the biggest impact on the congregation.
While music and multimedia may contribute to an engaging worship experience, it is more important to plan for an environment of inspiration. Stiggins pointed to some guidelines for planning dynamic worship:
  • Work with a planning team that includes a number of creative, passionate people. 
  • Draw from broader tradition of history of worship, such as lighting candles or altar calls. 
  • Talk with God – more than talking about God – in a way that is participatory. 
  • Plan a unifying theme that carries through the sermon, prayer, music, Sunday school, and Bible study. 
  • Tell the big truth and connect it to what to do next. People don't know a truth until they have acted on it. Offer ways for the congregation to act on what they have heard in worship. 
  • Limit announcements to three at the beginning or the end of worship. Church should not feel like a commercial. 
  • Commit to excellence in worship, environment, and hospitality.
Roberts read from a statement from the Florida Conference that says, "To be more fruitful, some congregations need to change from teaching to providing transformational environments where disciples are supported, challenged, and encouraged to live out what they already have in their heart."
He again emphasized that "churches must stop expecting the programs to do the work of evangelism at the negligence of involvement in people's lives.... When leadership reflects on how programming evolves through the lens of The Book of Discipline par. 122, they will stop programming people and begin to invite them on a journey."
To increase lay leader effectiveness, Southwick reminded the group of the value of a lay minister who can be a strong partner. Vital churches call, equip, use, and support 20 percent or more of laity as leaders. He also encouraged them to remember that pastors must get God involved in their approach.
"When pastors feel that we have to take on everything, perhaps it is because we don't believe God will do anything. God brings us the people we need. Will we trust in that and invest in the spiritual development of our lay people?"
The presenters suggested that implementing these cultural shifts would be more readily received if shaped as an invitation to discipleship, rather than a mandate that is dependent on system survival. While they do not believe that it is realistic for all congregations to meet every aspect of each driver, they emphasized that the Church is alive and organic, and full of possibility. When exploring how to become a vital congregation, according to the facilitators, the most important question to ask is, "How is our congregation joining Jesus in fulfilling his mission of advancing the Kingdom of God?"
About The Call to Action
After extensive research (available online at, the Call to Action steering team made key recommendations to focus the Church's leadership for the next 10 years, recommendations centered on what the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table agree is the Adaptive Challenge for The United Methodist Church. That challenge is to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. (From the 2011 State of the Church Report.)
About the School of Congregational Development and the Intensive Facilitators
The School of Congregational Development is an annual event sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship, Path 1, and the General Board of Global Ministries. CDs and DVDs of worship and plenary sessions are available at
John Southwick is director of Research at the General Board of Global Ministries. Jeff Stiggins is executive director of the Florida Conference's Center for Congregational Excellence. Marc Brown is director of Connectional Ministries for the Virginia Conference. Michael Roberts is director of Connected in Christ of the Arkansas Conference.