The secret is really not a secret. It is well known by many congregational leaders. But, they do not accept it because they are looking for a magic act that brings quick vitality without deep commitment and persistent action.
Too many congregations are looking for a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution. They want a pastor who is a magician who can help them become something extraordinary without having to change their church in a way that moves it outside their comfortable zone. They want leadership that does not require them to alter their pattern of life, make sacrifices, or confront the fact that they prefer the comfort of their culture to the confrontation of living a prophetic lifestyle.
During a recent conference call as part of the FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community that I lead, I was reminded of the secret to congregational vitality that is clearly known by many Christian leaders, and clearly hidden to those who have not yet experienced it and believe it. It is simple, yet complex. It is easy, yet hard. It can start immediately, yet take years to become sustainable.
Early in my ministry I conducted research on 100 congregations in 15 cities across the United States. They were in areas of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, lifestyle, and population diversity transition. As a collection of congregations, they were overwhelmingly plateaued and declining in active weekly attendance. Only 25 percent were growing.
These same congregations had been the subject of a previous study ten years earlier. My study was to measure the transitions and changes that occurred during the most recent ten years.
Here were some of the trends over the decade between the two studies. Around ten congregations had disbanded. Another ten had relocated. A final ten had merged with another congregation. Only seven out of every ten congregations still existed in the same place and situation. This was a lot of change in a short time.
As these congregations responded to the significant transitions and changes both within their fellowship and in their community context, it became important to understand what led some of them to experience vitality and even growth. What blocked other congregations from experiencing vitality and growth?
Is It Ministry Style?
The research first looked at the ministry style of these congregations. Were they focused on evangelism and church growth? Were they focused on deep missional connections with their community context? Was it about deepening the spiritual formation and leadership development components of the disciplemaking processes of the congregations? Was it a focus on social ministry, justice, and advocacy particularly in relationship to “the least of these”?
From one perspective the answer to each of these questions was “yes”. The real answer was that this typology did not lead us to the answer we were looking for. The secret was something else other than ministry style. It was a secret that transcends ministry style. Many ministry styles can fulfill this secret.
In the several decades since I conducted my research I have read other research results that have discovered the same secret. It has been a great affirmation to see these scientific research reports that came to the same or very similar conclusions about the secret to congregational vitality.
Here is the Secret
The secret can be summed up in just three words. Vision. Plus. Intentionality. Or, to put them together–Vision Plus Intentionality.
Congregations captivated by God’s spiritual and strategic direction which they understand and deeply own as God’s vision for their future, who then align everything they do to intentionally live into or fulfill that vision, experience the secret to congregational vitality.
Is that really the secret? Is that all it takes? Where do I sign up? It is that simple–Vision Plus Intentionality. Actually it is much more difficult to achieve than it is to say these words.
As difficult as it is to discern and be captivated by God’s vision, it is even more difficult to align everything congregations are doing to live into or fulfill that vision. Doing so involves stopping doing things that do not support that vision that may be deeply ingrained concrete within the culture of congregations. Thus, achieving congregational Vision Plus Intentionality is a significant challenge even when congregations know it is the secret to long-term vitality.
Next: Achieving Congregational Vision Plus Intentionality