Looking for the Signs of Life
One of our primary responsibilities as pastors and church leaders is to find ways to inspire and ignite life within our congregations. For some this is simply a matter of finding ways to engage a body of believers who are ready to be led. In other cases, it may feel like a slow and arduous process as you try to re-energize a congregation that has grown tired and stagnant.
Unless your ministry is a new church development, your congregation will come with a history and a tradition. Sometimes those can be used as a catalyst for engaging in new and exciting ways of being the church in the world. And sometimes they serve as an anchor around our necks that hold us back and become a barrier to any kind of meaningful change. Learning to discern what can be used and what needs to be discarded is an important skill for any leader interested in true revitalization.
Transformation is something that we all want for our congregations, but our results are often mixed. There is no secret formula to achieve it and there is no single strategy that will ensure success. And very often achieving that sense of vibrancy and vitality depends on different factors in each congregational context.
What gives a church that special aura of vitality? How do we recognize the signs of life? While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a number of factors that seem to be common to the churches that we would consider the most appealing.
Vitality requires a purpose – Churches that have an extra sense of life are motivated by more than just the desire to be together. Sometimes it happens though worship, but often we find ourselves living out that purpose through a variety of activities, some social, some educational, some missional. Churches that exude a sense of excitement understand that there is a reason for everything we do together, and that ultimately reaching out to others in Jesus’ name is an important thing. It is what motivates and encourages us and it is inviting to others who want to join our cause.
Vitality focuses on mission – Our Christian walk compels us to reach out beyond ourselves. Mission can be realized in many different programs and approaches, but a sense that we are serving Jesus in the world, in ways that make a difference, is key to a sense of fulfillment within the congregation. Churches that are self-focused, where the primary attention is on the care of the building or making the budget or having meetings for their own sake do not share that sense of purpose.
Vitality is welcoming – Being a welcoming congregation is more than just greeting visitors at the door. It also requires a sense that those in a congregation value and enjoy being together. Vital churches find the time to be in fellowship together, not out of obligation, but because they value the gifts and friendship of the body. That is why so often we find ourselves sharing together around the table, whether for a meal, a cup of coffee, or even to experience the love of God through the Lord’s Supper. The signs of life are realized as often over a piece of pie as they are in a service of worship.
Vitality depends on sharing – Churches are the strongest when their members join together to share the work and the responsibility of being the church. Life is most often found in those places where the people are engaged in ministry and don’t just assume that it is the job of the staff or pastors. I have yet to see a congregation, large or small, where there was not enough work to go around, but the big question is in how the work is distributed. Cultivating spiritual and administrative gifts and then allowing the freedom for our members to exercise those gifts, is one of the primary things we can do to encourage life in our churches. With that sense of confidence and responsibility comes an attitude of shared ownership in the mission and a motivation to serve God through the church.
Vitality values authenticity – Be yourself – it is the first rule of success in our life together. Vital churches do not need experts – they need servants who understand two things: 1) that we are all in need of God’s grace, and 2) that we can learn from each other. Successful ministry never results from telling others what to do, but rather by sharing together in this journey of faith. When pastors take the time to get to know the members of their congregation, and show that they are truly interested in understanding their lives and their gifts, then we set the stage for a ministry of mutual trust and service.
Vitality reflects our worship – Our worship begins in the sanctuary, but it doesn’t stay there. The way we express our lives together in Christ is one of the most important signs of life in any congregation. Our spiritual lives are encouraged and fed by the time we spend together in that place, but they are nurtured and nourished when we take what we receive there and apply it to what we do each and every day. Worship takes many forms….in our prayers….in our devotions…in our scripture reading…in our service out in the community…and in the way we demonstrate that we are people of God. Vitality happens when worship becomes an irresistible expression of our faith and not just an activity that happens every Sunday at 10:00.
What are the signs of life in your church? It comes from different places and in different forms. It also comes from both the pastors and leaders of the church as well as the everyday members who make up the family of faith. As you get to know them in their own contexts, take note of what seems to give them energy or the areas in which they demonstrate a passion for their faith. In this new era in the life of the Church, it is important that each of us has our eyes on ways that we can effectively cultivate vitality in our work together. It doesn’t matter whether your church is large or small. We cannot afford to be complacent, inflexible, or worse yet, boring. But we must also be faithful to the leading of the Spirit and to the Word of God. We are given a mandate to share the good news from the God who loves us. Let us find ways to accomplish that responsibility by encouraging those around us, while also reaching out to a world that is still waiting.