A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Got Vitality?

There’s so much advice these days for congregations looking to increase their vitality. Just what is it that makes a faith community “vital”? How can one spot the congregation that has a healthy, growth-filled future? Our diocese is looking at congregation vitality with a keen eye these days, and initiating programs to help ensure that over time, every congregation has an opportunity to become or continue to be a dynamic, life-giving community.

So I’ve been thinking about traits that, to me, point to a place that exhibits that dynamism and is engaged in positive ways with its own members and with the outside world. Here are a few things that I think are important:
1.      Its members like each other. I know, I know, Christians are commanded to love one another (not to mention our enemies), bear one another’s burdens, etc. Part of living in community is learning to love people one isn’t even particularly inclined to like. But when the members of a community know how to enjoy each other’s company, have fun together, and exhibit genuine friendship toward their fellow worshippers, that’s no mean feat. It shows. And it’s attractive.

2.      Its members like each other so much that they look for opportunities to share that with new people. I suppose that sounds counter-intuitive: if you’re all so happy together don’t you want to preserve that by protecting your boundaries? But a strong, faithful community is always looking to share its own particular “good news” with the world.

3.      They are not anxious. This doesn’t mean they ignore challenges or are in denial when some unexpected crisis occurs. But they trust God, and they don’t let anxiety become a partner in their common life. They don’t “feed the virus”.

4.      They tackle the aforementioned challenges creatively. They realize that yesterday’s solutions are pretty much guaranteed not to be the answer to solving today’s problems, especially if they are pursuing a more vital and hopeful tomorrow. They are open to the Spirit’s leading, and to ideas from within (and beyond) the group.

5.      And speaking of creativity, they understand that the God they worship is the source of all creation and all creativity. Since they are made in the image of the Divine architect, that creativity informs everything they do.

6.      They know that worship is a two-way street. They don’t show up to be entertained, or with a litmus test of acceptable liturgical practices. They intentionally engage in the worship and praise of God, the proclamation of the word, the celebration and administration of the sacraments. They don’t sit with arms folded across their chests, stand without moving, or kneel with their faces buried in a prayer book. They understand that liturgy, like so much of life, is relational; and they are as aware of their fellow worshippers as they are of the God they worship.

7.      They respect their church’s leadership, lay and ordained. They respect them enough to challenge them if they feel the need, and to speak with them directly when they disagree with a decision the leadership has made or a position they have taken. They don’t triangulate or gossip, and if they encounter others doing so they nip it in the bud for the sake of the whole community.

8.      They truly understand that this life, and the good things in it, are transitory. At the same time, all are gifts from God to be enjoyed, cherished, and shared. They live in this tension, and love out of it.
So, there’s my list, and it's not exhaustive. Some are no-brainers, to be sure, but we tend to forget them when we get caught up in daily routine, mundane tasks, or crises of a more significant nature. What would you add to the list?

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