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Healthy churches birth healthy churches

 

Polly House
January-February 2016

"Vital congregations is the point of our mission" to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, says the Rev. Amy Valdez Barker. "It is who we are. It is the community of faith in which we know people are coming to know Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Barker, executive secretary of the Connectional Table for The United Methodist Church, made the statement in #CTTalks3: Vital Congregations. The short video pieces, which aired first in December and are archived at www.umc.org/who-we-are/CTTALKS-conversations-about-general-conference, are part of a series of weekly videos to help inform church leaders and General Conference delegates leading up to the 2016 General Conference in May.

In 2008, General Conference adopted the Four Areas of Focus. At the same time, the areas were proposed as a way to align the work of United Methodists across the connection, the ministry of many local congregations in one or more of them was acknowledged.

Four areas fruit of vitality

In 2012, General Conference supported an emphasis on vital congregations that emerged from the Council of Bishops during the 2009-12 quadrennium.

Bishop Rudolfo Juan of the Manila Area in the Philippines finds the two emphases are complementary and interwoven. "The four areas are the fruit of vital congregations and vital Christians," he says on #CTTalks, "but also the means of becoming vital congregations."

General secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries Thomas Kemper contends, "A congregation can't be vital" unless it is involved in one or two of the four areas. They are where the Wesleyan linking of social holiness and piety occurs, he says.

Vital congregations are described as:

  • Spirit-filled, forward-leaning communities of believers that welcome all people (Galatians 3:28)
  • Places where disciples of Jesus Christ are made through the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • Communities that serve like Christ through justice and mercy ministries (Micah 6:8, Luke 4:17-21)

Vital congregations 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
  • Strong children's and youth ministries

"Vital congregations are essential because it is the local church, primarily, where disciples are made," says Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck, chair of the Vital Congregations collaborative group, which includes members from the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table, on #CTTalks. "Such things as passionate worship, disciple-making systems, outreach and generosity, they're what we say helps equip the church to be in mission in the world."

Dyck finds vital congregations in urban, suburban and rural settings. A commonality, she says, is that "they are engaged with their communities."

Goal-setting remains important

Key to the vital congregations' initiative has been asking churches to set goals to increase their vitality and to provide regular reports of their progress toward them. Continuing to provide training to help meet the goals are several of the general agencies and annual conferences.

According to the vital congregations' section of the Discipleship Ministries website (www.umcdiscipleship.org/about/dreaming-of-vital-congregations), churches set goals to:

  • Give clarity and focus to ministry, connect disciples to purpose and focus their attention on the purpose of the church.
  • Move the church forward. Without goals, congregations can become stuck in a rut.
  • Create greater accountability to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Holy Spirit-inspired goals that are achieved makes us more like the body of Christ.
  • Make the congregation better – not for better's sake but to make us better for serving the community.

A number of annual conferences adopted dashboards as a method for churches to report weekly worship attendance and other statistics. Use of the dashboards reached a high in 2013 when 10,357 congregations were reporting through them, says the Rev. Naomi Hope Annandale, director of research and strategic evaluation for Discipleship Ministries. In 2015, 8,290 churches filed reports through the dashboards – 83 for the first time.

In the Manila Area, Juan reports an emphasis on discipleship through UMC-Disciples of Christ (UMC-DOC) training has lead to an increase in membership. He also saw "heightened enthusiasm and passion" for outreach when 417 local church care group leaders gathered for a conference in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in late 2014.

Vital congregations, communities

Self-evaluation is not always a simple or pleasant task, says the Discipleship Ministries' website, but churches that know where they are can more effectively plan where they want to go. Setting goals will give a church a plan and a direction as it works to increase:

  • Disciples in worship (worship attendance)
  • Disciples making new disciples (number of professions of faith)
  • Disciples growing in their faith (number of small groups)
  • Disciples engaged in mission (number of disciples doing outreach in the community and the world), and
  • Disciples sharing their resources for mission (amount of money given to mission).

The vital congregations pages on UMC.org, www.umc.org/how-we-serve/vital-congregations, offer ideas for a congregation to determine its current state of health, set goals to become more healthy and read about fellow congregations' road to spiritual health and vitality.

"Vital congregations reflect God's transforming love into their communities and around the world," says the Connectional Table in its report to General Conference 2016. "As faithful disciples, we are called to love our neighbors – to walk, worship and witness with them so that all may enjoy God's vision of abundant life. As United Methodists, we will challenge and transform broken systems and structures that perpetuate poverty."

"We are always looking at ways of creating vital Christians," Dyck says. "To do that, you need vital congregations ... and then be engaged in creating vital communities."

Polly House is a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee.