Talking with a colleague this week, I was asked, “What common denominators are vital, flourishing churches displaying today?”
The following response is unscientific, more story-driven than data-driven, and by no means an exhaustive list. (In fact, we would love to hear from you about what you would add to—or subtract from—this list, based on your current ministry experience.) But still, across multiple denominations and non-denominational churches, in faith communities as small as 30 and as large as 4,500, here are some signs of vitality that we are seeing.
- Vital churches are putting Jesus front and center. This actually needs to be said out loud right now. The church in its ministry is called to focus on many concerns in life and society … and they all flow from and into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Otherwise, we’re trying to be just one more cultural institution.
- Localized, collaborative ecclesiology is where vital churches are finding their partnerships and possibilities. Ministry partners in your neighborhood or community – including churches of different traditions, community ministries, 12-step groups, civic organizations, non-profits, philanthropies and more – matter much more than denominations and national institutions for a congregation’s day-to-day flourishing.
- Fear paralyzes. Writer John Cheever once called fear “the taste of a rusty knife.” Given that the Bible uses “Do not be afraid” as its constant refrain, vital congregations are living into that with anticipation of what is next with God. Patrolling the boundaries of your membership rolls, your budget numbers, or your church’s generational breakdown are all ways to let fear take a prime seat in your ministry. To borrow the title of our Thursday blog on resources for church boards, vital congregations are digging a deeper well to nourish one another with deep spiritual feeding. From that comes everything else a church needs: mission, formation, praise, prayer, study, advocacy. And, it banishes fear.
- Vital congregations today – of every size and stripe – are undertaking humble, risky service to their community. The combination of those words is important. They are doing this service not out of hope for adulation on social media, nor out of hope of attracting of lots of visitors to the church who will turn into new members. They are serving humbly because Jesus served with humility. And they are taking risks in their service. Christians responding to the complex needs of our society will experience experimentation, failure, learning, and unlikely outcomes.
- A corollary to #4 – vital churches are undertaking faith-filled justice making. Faith and justice need to be in the same sentence together. There are many important ways for individuals and groups to advocate for a just society. As the church undertakes this we are sent out from the reservoir of our faith. From there, we march, petition, protest, support, amplify, ally … and, having encountered the world God so loves in its roughest places, we return to worship, pray, share, and learn anew from God’s word, so we can be sent again. That is faith-filled justice-making.
- Vital churches know that the “in-person versus online” debate is a false one. As the adage goes, “if you give people a choice, they will take it.” It’s both/and, not either/or. For many congregations, the oldest and youngest participants in church are the ones benefitting most from a church’s online efforts. There are some churches with limited resources who are putting an iPhone in worship and offering a modest feed online to reach those who aren’t there. Other congregations with ample resources are producing a whole separate worship just for online. And no, if you stop online worship, your people will not be ‘forced to come back to worship in person.’ No activity of God that I can think of ever included the word “forced.”
- Church in the 21st century is about proclaiming God’s love and hope in a world of skepticism and doubt. It is about speaking God’s word of grace and joy into a society gripped by helplessness and despair. This word of love, hope, grace, and joy is essential, and it will not be received in most hearts and minds easily. Faith communities that are connecting with that estrangement (both with people in their communities, but crucially also with those participating in their worship service and on their church boards) are finding renewed urgency and relevancy in their work. Nothing should be said, written, or displayed that does not assume it is being viewed by those who, on their best days, cast a skeptical glance at the claims of faith.
I would love to hear from you which one or two of these sounds true in your setting, along with what you would add and what you would subtract. Learning from one another in this era of dizzying change is essential for us all in leading ministries with vitality and hope.
Again, none of these are meant to offer exhaustive list or a to-do list. One imperative: those in churches need to be more intentional about building relationships. Vital churches are pouring their time and energy into that far more than programs or strategic plans. What an opportunity we have right now!