What does ministry look like for my congregation in our changing context? Congregations across the PCUSA are asking the same question. I spent two days earlier this week in Indianapolis at the “Next” conference where Presbyterians explored this question together. My seven years of service on the General Assembly Mission Council has been dominated by questions about the future of joint ministry done at denominational and regional levels in partnership with congregations. Where do we begin?
My presbytery, Heartland Presbytery, has begun by contracting with the Vital Churches Institute to participate in The Acts 16:5 Initiative. Several congregations have formed teams consisting of a pastor and up to six congregational members who enter a three year discernment and transformation process. Some of the participating congregations are growing in number with healthy budgets, some are struggling to survive, most are somewhere in between. The idea is for these congregations to work as a cohort with the Vital Churches Institute periodically returning to coach them. The Institute is presently working with more than thirty presbyteries (as I recall) in a similar capacity.
We had the kickoff event for The Acts 16:5 Initiative last month. The two day event was in three modules intended to awaken congregations to present realities, to heighten expectations for their future, and to help set congregations on a path of continual discernment and refinement of vision. (And, no, we aren’t talking about a “vision statement” being the ultimate culmination of our work.) The final session of the event offered a menu of first steps, small and practical, that congregations might immediately take toward transforming life together. Their central theme is that “We must be the people of God before we do the work of the people of God.” Later consultations take the cohort deeper. I’m not going to recount all they presented but here are three interesting pieces I really appreciated.
First, if you’ve read much about church transformation, you’ve seen some variation of the bell curve graph that depicts the church life cycle, starting with growth, leading to stability, and ending with decline. Here it was called incline, recline, and decline. (While this frequently gets reduced to simple numbers, each stage is about more than just congregational size.) There is nothing inevitable about the cycle. Congregations in recline or decline can find a J-Curve that sets them on a new incline. Churches already on an incline can extend the incline.
Stan Ott, the Institute’s founder, suggested that we tend to use this model to look at the congregation only as an aggregate when in fact congregations exist as cells of members (like youth group, Presbyterian Women, deacons, etc.) We need to look at segments of the congregation in terms of the curve. Some cells may be quite vibrant while others may be seriously struggling. What is needed for each cell? What cells need to be let go? What cells need to be birthed? It is the combination of these cells that adds up to the aggregate picture.
Second, we were presented with a diagram of three overlapping circles that represent the three dimensions of the church:
- Doxological – Glorify God
- Koinonial – Grow Disciples
- Missional – Meet Human Need
They are inseparable, yet conceptually distinct, dimensions. We are doing all three when gathered and doing all three when dispersed. As I listen to many pundits speak on the need for change, I usually hear one or two of these dimensions being lifted up to the diminution of the others. This is a helpful construct for avoiding that mistake.
Third, their was diagram that showed a “Spectrum of Ministry and Mission.” It begins with big circles that shrink down to the individual and then expand again at the other end of the spectrum. The first three are the “Church Gathered” and the last three are the “Church Scattered”:
- Discipleship Community
- Small Group
- Workplace & Community
I find this a helpful construct for thinking about the various types of ministry we do.
As someone who has read tons on congregational transformation and seen many models come and go, and as someone who spent almost a decade working for transformation in a congregation that finally dissolved, and as someone who has consulted and participated with other struggling congregations, I come with some skepticism toward transformational programs. My impression is that Vital Churches has incorporated the best of what has been learned from previous transformational efforts. I think a key piece they offer that fills a critical gap in other processes is the development of a cohort of congregations who go through the process together with periodic input by a coach over an extended period.
I’m looking forward to serving on our congregation’s team and seeing how this all unfolds. You can learn more about The Acts 16:5 Initiative here. You can also find out more about denominational resources at The Office of Evangelism and Church Growth and at Presbygrow.