Thursday, May 07, 2009

Great story about work in Iowa

I've posted a link here from the on-line version of the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, which tells the story of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Ankeny, IA. They are a small church doing some marvelous work with the various immigrant families in their community. Their $25,000 grant comes by way of the Roanridge Trust fund, a pool of funds available to churches across the country through an annual distribution process. New Roanridge Fund applications will be accepted beginning on June 1, 2009. When those applications are available, I'll post another blog letting folks know how to access it. But in the mean time, check out the great stuff happening in Iowa. "Go, St. Anne's"

Monday, May 04, 2009

What's a "vital congregation"?

Based on my experiences, conversations, and insights of working with communities of faith across the country, I have developed the following “definition” of a vital congregation… which is very much a work-in-progress. It is constantly being informed and revised as I continue my conversations across the church. But for the moment, it goes like this:

A vital congregation is a community of faith which:
Invites people to become passionate followers of Jesus Christ
Creates opportunities for personal and corporate transformation
Equips and empowers people for gospel mission in the world

All that said, this definition says nothing about a congregation’s size or budget, whether it is rural or urban, whether it can afford the services of full-time clergy, or what part of the country this church may be located in. In other words, I believe that all congregations have the potential to be “vital” congregations. Let me briefly unpack that definition above just a little (though in reality I could go on and on about it).

“Invites people to become passionate followers of Jesus Christ” I believe that this invitation contains 3 necessary dimensions: Teaching people how to pray; teaching people how to engage the scriptures; and teaching people how to live in community. Lots of congregations tend to dabble in this, but not necessarily in a way that gives each individual member a point of entry into that life of passion.

“Creates opportunities for personal and corporate transformation” If our lives aren’t changed by being a part of a faith community, then what’s the point of being there? I believe that transformation is a two-edged sword as well. Communities of faith are places where my life can be changed, but they’re also places where our life can be changed as well as the holy People of God. Certainly from an Episcopal perspective, one of the primary (although certainly not the only) opportunities we have for transformation is through our worship. I tell worship leaders (lay and ordained) that, when they design and lead a worship service – every worship service they lead – if they are not doing so with the intention that somebody’s life might be changed as a result of that worship service, then they’re wasting their time. Worship has to be a lot more than “going through the motions” if it’s going to have meaning in people’s lives.

“Equips and empowers people for gospel mission in the world” At the end of the day, it isn’t about “me”… it isn’t even about “us.” It’s about fulfilling the Great Commission to “go out into the world.” Vital congregations are those which give people the necessary tools – spiritual, technical, social, emotional, etc. – to ‘be the heart and hands of Jesus in the world”… for it is “in the world” where the church is ultimately called to be. We are not a cloistered community of prayer, defending ourselves from the assaults of the world around us. We are only the Church when we are fully integrated into the lives, the culture, the daily experience of our wider community. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…” not “For God so loved the church.” And so, in the words of Kennon Callahan, “when the Church is in the world, God is in the church. And when the Church is not in the world, God is still in the world.” And so it is in the world where the Church is called to be.

As you can probably tell, this definition doesn’t provide for many specific metrics to determine how effective a congregation is. It does, however, provide some real-life, incarnated examples of congregational vitality. When I use this definition with groups, we can then play it all out in some detail… out of which we can then develop some evaluative models for how a church measures up to the definition.