Friday, May 19, 2017

Over the course of a year, I get to visit many congregations; sharing worship, teaching a workshop, leading retreats, and more. Sometimes I leave these interactions a bit depressed at the navel gazing and hand wringing. Other times, I can sense the excitement and commitment to discipleship that will ensure a healthy future. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I'm not sure how to define Congregational Vitality, but I know it when I see it.

When I speak about Vitality, one of the ways that I recommend to nurture it is by reconnecting to the community in mission and ministry. Dr. Lovett Weems Jr. of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership points out that the longer a congregation exists, the less connected it tends to be with its community.

New congregations have to pay attention to trends and demographics to ensure their survival. As congregations become settled and stable and larger, their focus invariably shifts from reaching new disciples to caring for current members. It's a shift from external sensitivity to internal focus. The longer a congregation exists, the more disconnected it can become. That's not good news for our churches, now averaging almost 200 years old.

Churches that seek a renewed sense of vitality can often find it by reengaging their communities, finding a renewed passion and purpose in serving others. Moreover, this mission and ministry can become an important new entry point for both participation in the life of the church and financial support. Time and again I see examples of our churches that are receiving significant financial support from members of the community they serve - from those who are not members or even attendees of worship. This support comes when the congregation establishes itself as a spiritual and literal force for good; where the congregation is perceived as 'value added' to the community at large, not just its membership. These same congregations are, by no coincidence, growing numerically. It's important to note that this is mission and ministry done 'with' your community, not 'to' or 'for' your community. It's a partnership.

Imagine then, my delight after a visit with the Waitsfield United Church of Christ recently to talk about their stewardship campaign. This is a congregation that through regular community meals and a myriad of other ways has successfully reengaged their community. They are, just a few months in, very close to reaching their Capital Campaign stretch goal of $375,000. This will be added to more than $260,000 in grant monies already awarded to improve their facility to better meet the needs of their community.

Here's the part I don't want you to miss. About 25% of the contributors, and more than 50% of the total funds, came from people unaffiliated with the congregation. Let that sink in for a bit. A congregation that is seen as an important, contributing partner to the community in which they reside can expect significant financial support from that community. It can also expect growth in attendance and participation. It's not WHY you reengage your community, but it is an anticipated positive result.

To return to Dr. Weems, he invites you to ask yourself this question: "If your church closed today, who would miss it other than your members?"