Impacting the Vitality and Vibrancy of Churches For Decades to Come
The ministry practices congregations establish during their first seven years of life, that must be re-envisioned and renewed every seven years thereafter, are institutionalized by the time congregations are 21 years old—almost a generation since birth.
These ministry practices represent the learned behavior patterns, the culture, the way things are done that will stay with congregations for a lifetime unless discontinuous or radical change occurs. Such ministry practices will either empower the second, third, and following generations of congregations, or control them. They will lead to either vitality and vibrancy or lethargy and spiritlessness.
Subsequent generations and leaders must live with the ministry practices that are hardwired into the once young congregations they now experience and seek to lead. Changing congregational culture is tough. Very tough.
Wise leaders of young congregations realize they must not only focus on what makes their church successful and significant during the first generation of life, but also on what will make their congregations successful the second, third, and following generations.
Foolish leaders of young congregations say that is not their problem. Future leaders will have to correct what does not work for them regardless of the institutionalized culture we hand off to them. We are too busy building a successful congregation.
Nearsighted and self-serving are some words that could be applied to the leaders of young congregations who refuse to take responsibility for building an agile and flexible congregational culture that is sustainable.
What are the critical ministry practices congregations need to establish in their early years that will empower their vitality and vibrancy for many years to come? The practices are foundational and common. The perspective needed is one of process and organic rather than programmatic and organizational.
Also, a commitment must exist to not only church growth, but the long-term factors that produce church health. (Note: Robert Dale addresses the synergy of these two in his book Perennial Church Growth: Your Guide to Long-Term Growth, Chalice Press, 2008.)
Seven Essential Practices
First is inspiring worship of God that seeks to understand that God is the audience for worship. The desire is to help congregations experience God in meaningful and motivating adoration and praise. Worship participants must feel refreshed and informed regarding the truth of the gospel, and motivated to be Christlike in God’s world.
Young congregations should distinguish between the substance, structure, and style of worship, an approach I learned from Robert Webber who was the guru of blended or convergent worship. The substance of worship—who we worship and why—remains the same forever.
The structure of worship—the key elements and practices of worship—modulate over the years. The style of worship—liturgical, traditional, contemporary, emergent—is subject to continual transition and change because the style is not the key. Substance is the key supported by structure, and experienced with a spiritually and emotionally captivating style.
Essential Practice One: A strong foundation of an inspiring substance of worship that connects worshipers in meaningful and motivating adoration and praise of the Triune God. A clear pattern exists of continual innovation of worship structure and style to connect with succeeding generations of worshipers.
Second is a commitment to an effective disciplemaking process that empowers preChristians along a lifelong journey toward becoming mature followers of Christ. Those already connected with Christ and congregations are led to continually engage in spiritual formation and missional engagement.
This commitment to the process of disciplemaking is exceedingly more important than the success of programs, ministries, and activities of congregations. Too many congregations believe if their programs are successful then the church is successful.
The process of disciplemaking is a focus on people and their spiritual relationship to the Triune God. On the one hand it is a deep focus on preChristians, unchurched, underchurched, and dechurched persons who need to connect with the Triune God and a Christ-centered, faith-based community known as a congregation.
On the other hand it is a process that inspires, educates, and deploys Christian disciples along their lifelong journey. It focuses on their spiritual gifts, life skills, and personality preferences to develop them as leaders who generously give of their time, talents, and economic resources to fulfill the mission and vision of their faith community.
Both of these aspects of disciplemaking are part of the essential practices of young churches. Both must be hardwired into the culture of congregations because the tendency is to increase the focus on existing, faithful Christian disciples the longer a congregation is in existence. This weakening tendency must be directly addressed.
Essential Practice Two: A commitment to helping preChristians, unchurched persons, underchurched persons, and dechurched persons, along with active, faithful disciples to spiritually form and missionally engage as a major focus of congregations rather than programmatic success and church growth alone.