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What is a Thriving Church System? Thoughts from the Church Development Process Task Force

Howard Hanchey asks a great question. What marks the difference between those mainline churches who are doing well and those who are just limping along? Is this just good luck or is there something more at work in their common life? At the last diocesan convention, Bishop Russell formed a committee, the Church Development Process Task Force, to look at parish vitality and what our diocese might possibly offer to enhance that power. Those of us on this task force, the Rev. Barry Crowe, Janet Foote, Sally Crenshaw, the Rev. Jeff Garner, Phyllis Findley, and the Rev. John Withrock, hope that through this process we will be able to deepen our Anglican roots, as well as finding ways to help our congregations change their outlook from one of “merely surviving” to the development of robust health. It is our hope to present workshops and speakers who will impart concrete and useful information that parishes can take back to jump-start vital congregations.

I have a saying that I feel is applicable for all churches: the Church exists, not for those inside the Church, but for those who have not yet come inside our doors. Large, small, or in-between- a vital, thriving church is doing four things:

1. They are increasing the participation of the public (those beyond our doors) in church life;

2. They are deepening the spirituality of adults, both within the church, and beyond in the community;

3. They are multiplying the opportunities for discipleship; and

4. They are maximizing the impact of the gospel on the world.

In order to incorporate these things, there are several conversations in which we must engage.

Conversation 1: It’s not about you

While all congregations can stand some improvement, much of what congregations face is not about them. It is about an end of an era-a sea change in the religious ecology of North America, and the role of the congregation in our society. Even the Alban Institute has made a statement that American Christendom is over. While this may not be news to most clergy, it remains news for many in our congregations. Church leaders need to do a better job of helping their congregations understand what is meant about “Christendom” and what that era meant in terms of church role, Christian formation, mission and the role of the clergy. The end of Christendom means that congregations must learn anew how to do adult Christian formation. We must re-encounter both mystery and a living God.

Conversation 2. A New Heart

We need to ask “What is God calling us to do?”

1.Servant Ministry (evangelism) starts at home. Before we can share the good news beyond our doors, we need to hear it ourselves in our congregations. 2. What is the message we offer about God? 3. When lives are transformed by the mercies of God, energy is produced-and that energy translates into new forms, mission, and vitality. According to Thomas Bandy, transformed adults are the future of the church.

Conversation 3: Why are We Here? /Listening to God?

What is the vision-what is God calling the church/parish/congregation to do? Some think the purpose of the Church is the comfort and satisfaction of its members. It’s all about listening to God, and developing a vision and best practices for what we hear God calling us to do. It is moving from useless mission statements that no one ever thinks about – to a vision of vitality for the future of the church.

Conversation 4: Let’s get (Less) Organized

Too many congregations think the best way to get people involved is to get them on a committee. Elaborate organizational structures of many congregations are counterproductive and are designed for maintenance rather than mission. There must be a change in the system.

Conversation 5: Taking on Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive challenges require intrinsically spiritual work because they involve loss, risk, and the changing of hearts and minds. Sometimes it’s good to call in the experts for help. Once the vision is in place congregations and leaders need to ask: “What are the adaptive challenges that we need to work on and make progress in order to more fully realize our vision? How do we make the shift from board culture to ministry and spiritual culture, how to move from stewardship as meeting the budget to one of growing congregations of generous people?”

Conversation 6: So where do we start?

Arriving at a clear, theologically sound vision is half the battle. Congregations not only need a clear and compelling vision, but they also need a clear sense of vision. The two are related but different. Doing this work means we don’t have the answers in advance. Like the Hebrews, we are learning what it meant to be Israel during their long journey in the wilderness, and like the church in the Acts of the Apostles, who were learning what it meant to be the church, we are in a new time of learning. As we change the conversation, we will come to see this as a time of learning, deepening faith, and a great godly adventure.

These are only a few of the many conversations we have had with regard to renewal, vitality, best practices, and moving God’s kingdom forward in our diocese.

(See Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy; Creating Congregations of Generous People by Michael Durall; and Church Growth and the Power of Evangelism by Howard Hanchey)


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