BALTIMORE – One of the three emphases of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 initiative is congregational vitality. But what exactly does “congregational vitality” mean for a typical church?
During a Feb. 12 session, members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board got a primer on what counts and what doesn’t. “Notice I didn’t say anything about our buildings, our budgets or our butts in the pews,” said Kathryn Threadgill, the coordinator for the Vital Congregations initiative, near the end of her presentation. “Congregational vitality is about spiritual faithfulness” in a 21st century context.
So far, 14 presbyteries have participated in the first wave of the 2020 Vital Congregations national project, which provides training and support, and another 12 presbyteries will be part of a second wave starting in January 2021, Threadgill said.
Vital congregations are better equipped to do the rest of the work of the Matthew 25 initiative: to play a role in ending systemic poverty and dismantling structural racism, said Ray Jones, director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. But what are some of the impediments?
“My goodness you all, fear in the church is the enemy,” Jones said – fear of change, of confronting people, of taking the risks inherent in doing the work of justice. He spoke of the movie “Harriet” – of the scene in which Harriet Tubman, at the start of her run for freedom, speaks with the minister Samuel Green.
“Green said, ‘Trust God,’ ” Jones told the board. “That’s what congregational vitality is about. It’s about dealing with our fear, about the power of the Holy Spirit, and trusting God.”
The 7 marks
Threadgill presented 7 marks of congregational vitality: describing what they are – and what they’re not.
- Lifelong discipleship formation.
- What it’s not: Complacent Christian piety, teaching good morals, or offering the latest programs.
- What it is: “This is cradle-to-grave theology,” where being a disciple of Christ informs how that person lives – for example, how they spend their time and their money. It’s “living so that faith actually matters,” Threadgill said.
- Intentional, authentic evangelism.
- What it’s not: Some version of “Jesus Freaks,” or “We have a committee that does that.”
- What it is: Living as a disciple of Christ, so others notice the difference – they see the love in action. And when people from work or the neighborhood ask why, it’s not being afraid to answer, “It’s my love for Jesus Christ,” and it’s something I learn about at church. Then extend the invitation: “I would love for you to come with me. … When they ask me about it,” Threadgill said, “I’m not afraid to tell about my church.”
- Outward incarnational focus.
- What it’s not: Closed communities of assimilation or exclusion. And it’s not “inward institutional survival” – as in, “how can we get more young people to come to our church?” (Basically, “you can’t,” Threadgill said – because few young adults want to join in with the way most churches do things.)
- What it is: “This was always meant to be an apostolic gospel. … We go as Christ went, incarnate, to those who are lowly and least, marginalized and oppressed, in prison and in need.” Go out. Don’t expect people to come in.
- Empowering servant leadership.
- What it’s not: Only the pastor’s job to lead. Or something that will be solved by “just hiring the young, energized, tattooed pastor.”
- What it is: “Every person in our church has a part to play,” Threadgill said. And “everyone in the church has a reason to feel they belong.”
- Spirit-inspired worship.
- What it’s not: Self-gratifying worship. Stale ritual. Consumer entertainment (“We’re here to put on a performance every Sunday”).
- What it is: The presence of God, consistently evident – not depending on how someone is dressed or how they voted, Threadgill said. “I come into the house of God and the spirit of God dwells in that place and I’m able to encounter it in worship,” from the youngest child to the oldest person there.
- Caring relationships.
- What it’s not: A social club. Hypocrisy. Judgment.
- What it is: Real and authentic. “We need to do a stronger and better job of practicing caring relationships,” Threadgill said, pointing out that Sunday mornings in most churches is still a segregated time, that there’s a high burnout rate for pastors in their first calls, and suicide among pastors is painfully common.
- Ecclesial health.
- What it’s not: A dysfunctional, toxic congregational environment. Hanging on to obsolete and irrelevant church buildings.
- What it is: A sense of belonging. It’s a sense of “I understand what the money is going for and I support that,” Threadgill said. “I handle the conflict and I want to be part of the body,” even when it’s messy. Everyone knows where they belong and where the money goes, and “they are part of the church of Jesus Christ.”
Board members spent some time discussing all this in small groups – with each group talking about one of the seven marks. Afterwards, here’s some of what they reported back from those conversations.
- In John’s Gospel, Jesus encouraged his disciples go to out into the world. “There will come a time when we need to tear down this particular church or institution and go out into the world,” said Bong Bringas. “We need to come out of the shell of our churches and trust that we’ve been taught enough,” that it’s possible to go out and share the love and the faith with others.
- What stands in the way? Tradition. “This is the way we always do it,” Bringas said.
- “Authentic evangelism is dangerous,” said Floretta Watkins – telling of how Pope Francis leaves the Vatican to help the homeless. To appeal to others, a congregation has to know to how to say “this is who we are.”
- Spirit-inspired worship offers solace to an aching world. “There’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of anxiety,” a lot of bad news, said Kathy Terpstra. “The church offers hope. … We know that in the end, God is in charge and it will work out.”
- Presbyterians need to talk more “about where we see the work of Jesus in our lives and souls,” said Shannan Vance-Ocampo. “If we’re not clear on that, it’s hard to tell others.”