Congregational Vitality Insights
Perspectives and reflections on congregational vitality
Practices – Lifelong Faith – John Roberto
“How shall we live now?” is a question most of us are asking post pandemic. Most published faith formation curriculum over the past 20-25 years have focused on “what we believe” or “what you should believe if you want to be a (fill in the denomination),” writes John Roberto. For children and teenagers, we have emphasized either learning the catechism of your particular Christian tradition or learning (memorizing?) specific Bible teachings or stories as the content necessary for developing a Christian way of life. In his reflection on Senge’s insight (read the excerpt of the interview here: A Guide to Designing Formation in Christian Practices), McLaren writes, “The issue, of course, isn’t either/or, but both/and; it’s hard to deny that many of us have lost the “way” of our faith. Without a coherent and compelling way of life, formed in community and expressed in mission, some of us begin losing interest in the system of belief, or we begin holding it grimly, even meanly, driving more and more people away from faith rather than attracting them toward it.” Whether it is for an individual, small group or entire congregation, Roberto offers us several practices that will move us from information to transformation, if that’s what we desire.
Practices – Lifelong Faith
Church Resources – Matthew Ruttan
Another site where you have access to videos and other resources for worship services, discipleship material for the congregation, illustrations and stories for sermon preparation, daily devotionals and many more bible resources that will help you in your spiritual journey. Produced by Rev Matt Ruttan of the Westminister Presbyterian Church in Barrie, ON, it offers relevant resources that his congregation and leadership use on a regular basis to grow a culture of discipleship and spiritual curiosity.
Church Resources – Matthew Ruttan
Thriving Churches: Urban and Rural Successes
by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd
Review by: Rev. Dr. HyeRan Kim-Cragg
(Timothy Eaton Memorial Church Full Professor of Preaching at Emmanuel College)
I am writing this book review in the thick of the COVID 19 global pandemic. Everyday news is filled with the spread of the COVID 19 variants, the short supply of the vaccine, the failure to target people who are at high risk, the seeming inability of the government to balance the tensions between economic, social and health priorities and people’s failure to distinguish between rights and responsibilities. How do I capture this situation in one word? “crisis.” The whole world and Canada are in crisis.
Churches are not immune to this pandemic crisis. In fact, churches have been in crisis for some time. Most United Church congregations are running deficits, experiencing significant decline in attendance, and/or struggling with aging members and old buildings, to name just a few of the common challenges. Into the midst of these foggiest crises, a glimpse of light is piercing through offered by Loraine Mackenzie Shepherd with the help of Tammy Allan. That is what you as readers will see in this book. As Shepherd’s sabbatical research project, she visited urban congregations while Allan visited rural churches across Canada. A close look at the 17 congregations visited by these two researchers has generated 14 spiritual attributes which characterize a thriving church. The first attribute is “visionary” followed by “radically hospitable” “joyful” “communal” “accountable” “humble” “open-hearted” “risk-taking” “discerning” “contemplative” “mission-focused” “generous” “offering public witness” and “innovative.” In order to thrive, we need visions with these attributes. That would be one sentence summary of the book.
Chapter 1, the lengthiest chapter, discusses the importance of spiritual attributes in general and briefly explores the 14 featured attributes which, it is argued, trace back to the early churches. The letter to Romans and the letter to Galatians serve as the main sources for these insights. These attributes are important, Shepherd explains, because they inspire, guide, and sustain ministry (p. 17). The attributes serve as the lifeblood of thriving congregations that foster incarnational relationships and build the community as the body of Christ. Or, using the cooking metaphor, you might say these attributes are the key ingredients that make the food that nurtures a healthy community of faith. Each attribute is elaborated through biblical exegesis and concrete examples from the congregations that Shepherd and Allan visited.
Chapter 2 features common characteristics of thriving churches. It focuses on the question of “who” we need to be. Since they focus on people who are in relationships, thriving congregations pay less attention to the building, financial security and attendance numbers and more attention to the needs of the people and their lives including these of newcomers. The characteristics identified are as follows: “up-to-date, multi-faceted publicity,” “Christian-rooted sacred space” “inspirational worship” “spiritual formation and support” “meaningful ministry opportunities” “vibrant children’s and youth programs.” In this chapter, it is argued that the vision congregations need must be rooted in Christian faith and practice (p. 50). This vision, in turn, becomes reflected in the sacred space and is the worship that occurs in that space. Shepherd spends time reflecting on the importance of dynamic, relational, and relevant preaching which is imbued with biblical and theological depth and contextual and analytical substance. A good litmus test to check whether your congregation is thriving, says Mackenzie Shepherd is to ask, “if a stranger walked into your church, what would they see?” Here I would add the following questions: “what would they hear, and how would they identify themselves to be part of the community?”
Chapter 3 is timely and contextually specific as it deals with COVID 19 and its long-term consequences. Given both the certainty that there will be a lingering change and the uncertainty of what that change will be, this chapter contains reflections to help us anticipate and get ahead of what may be coming. Shepherd shows that one aspect of COVID 19 is that it made an already existing crisis more visible. She observes that thriving congregations coping with the COVID 19 crisis have the following strengths: “spiritual foundation,” “clarity of values and vision,” “responsive flexibility,” “strong leadership teams,” “congregant connections,” “creative adaptation,” “community outreach,” “acceptance of challenges,” “evolution for the future,” and “spiritual attributes.” The reader notices these strengths did not come out of nowhere. Rather, they circle back to the spiritual attributes discussed in the first chapter.
In my view, visions are often given in moments when it is very hard to see. The homilist in Hebrews expresses this wisdom with the line, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11: 1). Faith is at the heart of our Christian vision, providing a glimpse of the mystery of God that, in turn, encourages us to embrace uncertainty. Shepherd helpfully introduces the work of the mysticism as a valuable spiritual heritage that flourished in the 14th century where the Black Plague took far more lives than COVID 19 is likely to do (p. 70).
Chapter 4 connects the reality of thriving congregations with the intercultural mandate of the United Church of Canada. Thriving congregations seriously address white privilege and dismantle racism as well as recognize power imbalance. Thriving congregations consciously work for diversity: diversity of leadership, diversity of abilities, diversity of cultures and diversity of languages. Congregations that are thriving celebrate and respect differences, while resisting the status quo (with the toxic mantra, ‘we have always done this’). They are also willing to unlearn things that privilege dominant groups. Finally, Shepherd makes another connection, the connection between thriving congregations and affirming ministry, an aspect that is integral to intercultural ministries.
Chapter 5 offers detailed outlines for Bible studies on the spiritual attributes of the early church found in Romans and Galatians. It also provides various types of prayers as spiritual resources and tools for self-assessment of spiritual attributes. A Bible study of the 14 different attributes of thriving congregations is organized into eight sessions, each session taking approximately 2 hrs to complete. This study is holistic, integrating biblical reflection, spiritual practice, public witness in action, and communal activity.
The book ends by listing a few additional resources and book references for those interested in learning more about thriving congregations.
Whether you are newcomers, cradle United Church members, paid accountable ministry personnel, or transient members, the book Thriving Churches is inclusive and reflective of your lived experiences. I recommend this book to all who seek meaningful relationships, desire faithful discipleship, yearn for healthy life as Christian, and commit to justice work in the world!
Our churches are in crisis, and not just because of COVID. Statistics shows that “an average of one United Church per week is closing.” (p. 15) The United Church is not alone in this, though. All churches, mainline and most evangelical are in a similar crisis. Perhaps this book will encourage the church, especially the UCC, to imagine ways it can do more to thrive in the 21st century by lifting up the many ways that its congregations already are doing evident in the 17 featured congregations here. As such, it is a very timely contribution indeed.
Watch an interview with Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd and other authors, here.
Who wants to do be church?
It is a difficult time these days to talk about flourishing nor is it uplifting to talk about dying. Both represent the ends of a spectrum that not only describes individual health but also congregational health. After all, congregations are the sum of its people and yes, the measure of a congregation’s health should be that of its members: health in its totality – spiritual, mental, emotional and physical.
My guess is that most of us are experiencing a state of health that lies somewhere between dying and flourishing: that in-between state psychologists refer to as languishing. For an explanation of what this means in a mental health context, visit https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html.
What does it mean to languish as a congregation? What resources do we have to combat a feeling of apathy, resignation and/or loss?
Let’s face it, most of us are stuck. We aren’t able to do church anymore. We’ve temporarily lost our ability to experience what is familiar: in-person gatherings, that feel-good part of belonging to a community that sings, prays and worships together: our coffee and gossip times and sitting back and listening to good music sung by a choir or a worship team. And now, sitting in front of a screen, we try to be cheery and grateful but, if we’re honest – it’s hard. Hard to focus, to interact, to really feel that warmth (except the coffee) of fellowship and then, there are the disruptions. Someone’s blending a smoothie in the kitchen, the dog wants out, the kids are arguing and the mute is on, which means I have to repeat everything I just said!
And did I forget to mention the sermon? What did the minister just say? And what did it have to do with the job that I just lost and my loved one who contracted Covid and the fact that I’m stuck in this apartment with no end (to this misery) in sight.
On another front, my colleague in office has just lost her dad to Covid and is in need of comfort. The owners of my corner grocery store have put up a “for sale” sign on their door. I desperately want to be a channel of hope and comfort to both of these folk with whom I interact on a daily basis but I don’t know how. I know that I’m a Christian, I know that I’m supposed to have a faith that is hopeful that I can share but I am at a loss: I don’t feel that I am capable nor do I have the courage to talk about that hope that lies within me. Should I call my pastor? Should I offer the cliche “I will pray for you?” and walk away? Or is there something else I can do?
The impact of the pandemic has and is taking its toll on everyone, Christians included. But Christians have always, through the ages shown resilience and courage in the face of trouble. In the early centuries and even later, Christians were noted (by non-Christian historians) for their courage and sacrifice during times of pandemics. When the rich fled the city, taking their doctors with them, Christians stayed back to help the sick and suffering.
How do we do this now? Is the pandemic forcing us to stop DO-ing church in order that we may BE the church? Is this the opportunity to turn our loving gaze away from what is familiar and pay attention to the mission of God in the world that is proximate to us?
What resources are at my disposal that would help me to be that courageous, unselfish presence in my habitat? Do I have a faith that is robust enough to nourish my soul and spill over to my neighbour too? How does my personal health affect my witness and engagement in the communities that I hang out with, whether in person or on-line?
These and other such questions are ones we will be exploring in the coming months as we discuss congregational vitality and health. I invite you to think about and contribute to the conversation. We are all in this together, without exceptions and I believe we have an opportunity to lay aside caste, colour and denominational affinities in order to serve and learn from each other.
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