Call To Action, Part IV: Key Drivers of Vitality
The Call to Action Report calls for a ten-year sustained focus on congregational vitality and ministry as the primary place where the United Methodist Church fulfills its mission. In particular, Key Recommendation One asks us to use the drivers of vital congregations as the initial areas of focus. What are the drivers, and why does the report focus on these?
Four drivers are highlighted: 1. Effective pastoral leadership including aspects of management, visioning, and inspiration; 2. Multiple small groups and programs for children and youth; 3. Mix of traditional and contemporary services; and, 4. High percentage of engaged laity who assume leadership roles. Once again, let me encourage you to read the entire report as you consider its merits, limitations, and possibilities. You can find it at http://www.umc.org/calltoaction.
The entire Call to Action report began with an extensive in-depth statistical study of the United Methodist Church over the last several decades. The statistical analysis was supplemented with hundreds of interviews, inventories, and questionnaires with pastors and laity from across the denomination, conducted by an outside, independent company. The study attempted to get as accurate a snapshot of the current realities as possible so we can better understand the history, health, and future of our denomination. As Neil Alexander has said, “the purpose was not to find something new but to find what is true.” The study has found many things that are true, but also many things are true which are beyond what the study can find. In particular, the statistical study can only measure the correlations between the things we have counted and reported (which are many!) over the last forty years. The results confirmed what many people have already discerned, highlighting issues of decline, aging, failure to reach young people, and a crisis of relevancy. However, the news was not completely bleak. The study also confirmed what we already know, that we also have a significant number of healthy, vibrant, growing congregations in our connection despite the fact that the majority of churches have faced decline. Nearly 4500 congregations among our tens of thousands of United Methodist churches show strong empirical indications of vitality. They are somehow managing to thrive despite the overall decline.
Statistically, dozens of different elements of congregational life correlate with vibrant, effective ministry to some degree. The four drivers are highlighted because they correlate so directly and so completely with congregational health and vitality that the connection becomes indisputable.
For instance, the second driver is “multiple small groups and programs for children and youth.” This means that if we have a congregation with an average attendance of 100 in worship that has four small group ministries and we compare it to another congregation that has 100 in worship that has seven small group ministries, we discover with extraordinarily significant reliability that the second congregation is more vital, offering more mission and outreach, receiving more new people, experiencing healthier financial support, including more children, etc. What kind of small group ministries contribute to this outcome? Bible studies? Children’s ministries? Choirs? Prayer teams? Service projects? Support groups? Social action ministries? Sunday school classes? The answer is Yes, Yes, Yes! We can describe this as a sociological and organizational phenomenon, or we can reflect on how the Spirit deepens a sense of belonging and sparks the call to caring and serving “wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name.” Regardless of how we account for it, churches of all sizes with more small groups and more children and youth ministries fare better and offer more life-changing ministry than those of the same size with fewer such ministries.
The third driver is a “mix of traditional and contemporary services.” Again, what the data shows is that vibrant, growing, fruitful congregations are far more likely than declining congregations to offer a wider variation in approaches to worship. Are there exceptions to this? I’m sure there are. Some congregations thrive offering one single form and style of worship. But the strongest correlation between worship style and church vitality occurs with congregations that “widen the bandwidth” of their message.
The fourth driver is “a high percentage of engaged laity who assume leadership roles.” In the most vital congregations surveyed, 20-50% of the laity described themselves as actively engaged in leadership. This percentage far exceeds the number of laity who self-described themselves as engaged in leadership in declining congregations. The statistical correlation is indisputable: vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations of all sizes and in diverse contexts have in common a heavy involvement of laity in ministry. This does not mean they have lots of committees with lots of people serving on them! Engaged laity in leadership means people teaching classes, leading service projects, mentoring youth, serving the poor, leading praise bands, chairing new initiatives, providing worship leadership, serving in other forms of ministry, and yes, sometimes serving on effective committees that do meaningful work.
I hope these examples clarify the use of the word driver in the Call to Action. These represent empirically reliable correlations that are stronger than all other correlations in the study. They highlight the connections that are predominant and recurrent. Over and over again as one analyzes small, medium, and large congregations in rural, urban, and suburban settings, these correlations remain true. (I’ve set aside the first driver, “Effective pastoral leadership including aspects of management, visioning, and inspiration,” in order to deal with this more completely in a later blog.)
Are these the only elements that correlate to vitality in congregations? Absolutely not. There are tons of statistics related to financial and giving trends, level of debt, relative amounts spent on staffing and facility operations, percentage of funds received that are given beyond the walls, size of staff in relation to attendance, and so forth. Studying these shows correlations of many types. However, the four drivers show the strongest correlations of all. What about those things that cannot be measured? I have a strong belief, based on intuition and experience, that effective preaching and excellent worship leadership correlate to vitality in congregations. I also believe that active outward-focused service ministries correlate to congregational health. I’m probably right! But the quality of preaching and mission involvement do not appear among the drivers because there are not forty years of end-of-the-year reports turned into GCFA that record the quality of preaching and mission. Again, the study shows us things that are true; but many things are true that cannot be evaluated by the Call to Action study.
The Call to Action asks us to give sustained attention and concentration to these drivers. We are asked to direct our attention and resources to building effective practices in congregations that lead to high quality ministries.
Several colleagues contacted me as soon at the Call to Action report was released. Most said that the report supports and confirms the work I’ve been doing on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and with the new book, Five Practices of Fruitful Living. The drivers place excellence and fruitfulness front and center, and they call us to greater intentionality in our worship life, and small group ministries, and they highlight the absolute importance of lay ministry. On the other hand, a few friends contacted me to express concern that the drivers may undermine the focus on the Five Practices. If the UMC highlights these four, what happens to the Five Practices?
The language of the four drivers and the Five Practices operate at different levels of church leadership. When looking down from high above, the drivers help conference leaders, pastors, and lay leaders better understand some of the technical and strategic elements of church life that should be fed, strengthened, and evaluated. They may guide elements of training and preparation for ministry. But the four drivers will not preach. They do not motivate. They do not capture anyone’s imagination or draw anyone toward greater engagement. They are expressed in technical, analytical form. In contrast, the Five Practices continue to provide an excellent, powerful, and provocative common language for teaching and preaching and leading that help us focus on the most essential work for congregations in order to fulfill the mission of Christ. I see no conflict between the two languages, but they do serve very different purposes.
Some have asked me to critique or analyze the four drivers. The purpose of this blog is more to explain the Call to Action rather than to defend or criticize. However, I am aware of some immediate risks with the drivers. First, much of the current literature about discipleship teaches that it’s not just a matter of how many small groups you have, but which kind of ministries you offer. Reveal, (click here) the study developed around the impact of a large church’s ministry, teaches us that merely providing more activities for people in a congregation may make them passive recipients rather than prepare them to take responsibility for growing and nurturing their own faith in Christ. This literature indicates that some groups do better at forming disciples and encouraging courageous service in Christ’s name than other types of groups. I think this is worth noting. Second, while I agree that large churches which have the capacity to offer worship services with excellence in various styles should do so, I’m not sure if this applies equally to all churches of all sizes and contexts. Should we expect a newly formed growing congregation that offers only contemporary worship to add a traditional service? Not so fast. And for many small congregations, I’d almost rather they concentrate on offering one style (perhaps with blended elements) with excellence rather than initiate multiple styles with mediocrity. So much depends upon the context. If the church is reaching an increasing number of young people and new people and diverse people with the style they are using, I see no reason to invest huge amounts of time and energy in initiating something different. However, if the single style the church is offering only attracts an aging or declining part of the community, it’s time to learn a new style.
Think about your own congregation in light of these drivers. Honestly assess the number, strength, and effectiveness of small groups and ministries that reach young people. Are there areas of outreach and focus that that should be added that would help strengthen the spiritual life of existing members or serve as doorways for new people? What about the worship styles your congregation offers? How does it match the community where you serve? How does it reach young people? And how many of your laity are actively engaged in some form of meaningful ministry? How many are growing in Christ through actively developing their leadership skills in expression of service?
Yours in Christ,