Through decades of ordained ministry, I’ve served churches from 50 to 700 members. They reside in rural, inner city, and suburban settings. I humbly offer some reflections on what I believe makes a church vital. This is not an exhaustive list; just a chance to share what I’ve learned from wonderful people over the years.
• There’s a powerful sense of purpose: Writing purpose statements is trendy; sometimes they remain trite slogans on paper, never igniting real passion. In vital churches, however, people are excited about their calling to live out the love, grace, and community so desperately needed in our troubled world.
• Reconciliation is paramount: Like all families, congregations have times of conflict. Vital churches don’t let these conditions fester. They bring them to the surface with respect for all points of view. They feel called to a ministry of reconciliation; they know that when we practice forgiveness with genuine humility, spiritual power is unleashed.
Mission is face-to-face: Vital churches find ways to enter the streets around them. They seek outreach opportunities that put them face-to-face with others, especially those in greatest need. They know that the nexus of human interaction is when God’s love becomes flesh.
• There’s a theology of plenty, not scarcity: Fear of not having enough is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vital churches believe that possibilities abound for new life, new growth, new ministry. Because of this, they are generous with their resources, personally and collectively.
• ABCs are just one measure: Attendance, buildings, cash…these are common barometers for success. Vital churches go beyond these standard metrics to celebrate lives revived, wounds healed, strangers welcomed, communities drawn into unity.
• Faith is an adventure into relationships with God and others, not religion: Enough said…
• Newcomers are the most important people of the day: Vital churches see each visitor as a gift from God, an opportunity to practice love, grace, and inclusion. This goes far beyond genial handshakes. It means getting to know new names, asking questions, hearing stories, being available to serve. Vital churches make sure that greeting and following-up on newcomers is intentional in every regard.
• Worship is authentic, less concerned with form than function: Vital churches infuse their liturgy with elements of authentic struggle. Human life is never easy. Sermons and prayer times invite people into the struggle without pretense. There’s room to doubt, grieve, and express anger. Worship is open to spontaneity, not strangled by perfectionism. There’s space for the Spirit to move in surprising ways.
• Worship is multi-sensory and interactive: Good teachers know that if you want to imbed a message in “contextual memory,” appeal to ALL senses. Vital churches use a variety of sensory experiences during worship and education.
• Attending worship is an act of service, not a spectator sport: In vital churches, worshippers arrive with an availability to the Spirit. Their intent is not to evaluate the sermon or the music. They do not come to judge, but to serve!
• Elders and members treat pastors with the same love and grace they expect from them: Ordination is for service, not status. Pastors simply have a different gift set. They are flawed human beings. Take them off false pedestals. They need forgiveness and grace like all of us. Vital churches realize this and do not have double standards.