Ponderings of the General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley
February 13, 2023
I’ve been thinking about dying churches. This is not because we will be closing several churches this year. A dying church is not synonymous with one that is closing. Churches close for a variety of reasons – demographics being chief among them. And even churches who appear to be doing well can, in fact, be dying.
The opposite of a dying church is a vital one. One of the goals of our commitment to being a Matthew 25 presbytery is promoting congregational vitality. The Office of Vital Congregations within the Presbyterian Mission Agency has come up with a list of the “7 Marks of Vital Congregations” to help us come up with some discussion questions and talking points for assessing the church’s vitality. Below is a view quick overview of what they are:
- Lifelong discipleship formation
This first mark is not complacent “Christian” piety; it is not just teaching good morals; it is not simply offering the latest programs. Lifelong discipleship formation is from the cradle to the grace; it is a faith that seeks understanding; it is discipleship awakened and engaged; it is formed and strengthened in community. This first mark of a vital congregation emphasizes the need for the continual transformation of the people who come seeking it. David Kinnaman in his book “unChristian” writes: “Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends. they are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to think like Christ.”
- Intentional authentic evangelism
Jesus says: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19b). This second mark of vitality is not about tricking people into believing or about luring them into membership, it is about intentionally sharing the good news that we have received and authentically showing Christ to the people around us. Gone are the days in which Billy Graham would have 3.2 million people come to hear him speak over the course of a 4-day event (Seoul, South Korea in 1973), now there needs to be a more relational one-on-one aspect to evangelism. How do you relate to those around you in this way?
- Outward incarnational focus
Christine Pohl writes in “Making Room:” “If we are genuinely concerned about the needs of strangers, offering hospitality requires courage.” The total opposite of this third mark Outward Incarnational Focus would be inward institution survival, but unfortunately, that’s what this becomes in some congregations. Many churches are too busy navel-gazing to look out into the communities around them and see what the needs and wants are of the people they want to connect with. I worked with a church that once sat down with an actual paper map and an old-school compass from 7th-grade geometry and drew a 1-mile circle around their property. They then decided to go to all the groups and agencies and people in this circle they didn’t already have a connection with and simply introduce themselves. This was the beginning of a pretty amazing adventure for them.
- Empower servant leadership
“Servant leadership” has become a buzzword ever since it appeared in Robert Greenleaf’s book that had those two words as its title back in 2002. There are countless articles, essays, poems, and videos describing what servant leadership is all about. It’s even made it into the business world and onto the TED stage! The mark, however, I like to point out begins with the word “empower.” How are we empowering servant leadership within our congregations and outside of our walls? How are we empowering the next generation to understand this phrase from a faith perspective and not just a catchy cliché? After all, it was Jesus (the ultimate servant leader) who said: “For I have set you and example, that you should also do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
- 5. Spirit-inspired worship
Someone came out of worship the other week and told me: “Preacher, I was not a fan of worship today. I couldn’t sing the hymns, I couldn’t follow your sermon, I couldn’t even get the silly plastic individually wrapped communion cup open to partake in the Lord’s Supper! I got absolutely nothing from that worship service.” And my response was simple and direct (and a little passive-aggressive): “Well, that’s fine. We weren’t worshipping you anyways.” Is worship meant to be self-gratifying or consumer entertainment? Or is worship meant to be for God, about God, centered on God? Mark Labberton in “The Dangerous Act of Worship” writes: “Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.”
- Caring relationships
This sixth mark is often the mark that congregations skip. They already think of themselves as “nice” or “friendly” or “warm” and so they assume they already have this one covered. But I often encourage them to go into the depths with this one to uncover some areas they might still need to think through what Caring Relationships are ultimately about. Is there welcome and hospitality shown to ALL? Do you have healthy practices for confronting conflict and seeking reconciliation within your community? Do you have people who make peace and build bridges with those outside of your congregation?
- Ecclesial health
This seventh mark has some bulk to it and you can talk about it in terms of gaining clarity in mission or keeping core values in ministry or fiscally responsible stewardship. You can also spend time talking about the importance of knowing “why” and “how” we are a congregation and a part of the larger church. But the way I really like to talk about it is by quoting an old rabbinical saying about the 10th commandant to not covet. As the saying goes: “The final commandment is not a commandment at all, because if you live out all the other commandments you won’t want anyone else’s life!” I think the final mark of congregational vitality is a lot like the final commandment because if you live out all the rest of these marks you will have ecclesial health.
I hope this list has sparked some curiosity for you and perhaps can even serve as the basis of a great conversation at a session meeting or two or 12. (Southminster Presbyterian is currently doing a sermon series on these characteristics, for instance.)
To your health and as ever in prayer,