in Small Packages
How Rural Congregations Can Promote
New Life as We Begin to Reopen
We never imagined that we would have to cancel Sunday morning services for something like a virus. It was never on our radar and at least for me, it was a terrifying proposition. We know how to be the church in traditional ways, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But this time of quarantine has caused most pastors and church leaders to pause and think about how we can be the church in better, more faithful ways.
What does it look like to be a vital church? How can we recognize vitality and instill new life in our traditions and in our practice? For once, we get to hit the restart button. What should that look like for our congregations?
In some places you can feel it the moment you walk through the church doors – a sense of energy and enthusiasm and life. The greetings are genuine, the people seem motivated, the worship is vibrant, and the fellowship appears to be mutual. Most important, it doesn’t take long for newcomers to be welcomed into the circle. This is something you could get used to.
There are other churches where the mood is less inviting. It doesn’t mean that you are not greeted at the door and welcomed with a bulletin, but there is something missing. People quietly filter in and find their seats, but conversation is sporadic and subdued. Even when the preaching is decent, worship often feels like a collection of unrelated elements without a central focus and the hour seems to take much longer than sixty minutes. When the service is over, the members briefly greet one another in the narthex and then exit without much opportunity for fellowship, eager to beat the crowd to their favorite restaurant. You have been to this church before. And you are not excited about going back.
Vitality is something that we all want for our congregations, but the results are often mixed. It is hard to define specifically, however we seem to recognize it when we see it. Unfortunately, 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? Here are a few ideas to get the conversation started.
Vitality begins with mission – Churches that have an extra sense of life are motivated by more than just the desire to be together. Of course, basic to our Christian faith is an underlying call to serve God through Jesus Christ. But within that rubric, there are many things we can do to express our faith and share the good news. 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 purpose to everything we do together, and that ultimately reaching out to others in God’s name is an important thing. It is what motivates and encourages us and it is inviting to others who want to join our cause. 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 a sense of purpose that is appealing to others outside the community.
Vital churches share leadership – Organizations are the strongest when their members join together to share the work and the responsibility, and churches are no exception. 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. Too often our churches look like an inverted V, with the pastor and a few select leaders at the bottom and the others along for the ride. Members cannot expect their pastor to carry the whole load. Those that do usually experience two things – that their pastor will burn out, becoming less effective and eventually seeking a new call, and that the church body will be unmotivated, since they are essentially bystanders. On the other hand, the pastor must be willing to share responsibility for leadership with the laity. We cannot try to do it all ourselves. Too often in the past, members have been given jobs like Sunday School teacher or choir director, while worship leadership, preaching, visitation, and in some cases, decision making and administration, was left to the clergy. 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 vitality 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.
Worship is an attitude, not an activity - Too often we think of worship and church and Sunday morning as being synonymous. And while they do go together, we are short changing ourselves if we limit our worship of God to one hour on the weekend. We have certainly learned that lesson recently as our churches have worked to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. We know that worship is no longer necessarily tied to a particular place or a particular time.
In truth, worship can be a part of our lives in a very wide-reaching and all-encompassing way. And it doesn’t just happen in the sanctuary. And it doesn’t have to be limited to what we do together as a church. 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 our lives 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…in the words we use around other people and most important of all, 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 a rote activity that happens every Sunday at 10:00.
Vital churches express hospitality – It may seem obvious, but the church should be a welcoming place. And in many ways, our time together with the Christian community should be an opportunity to take refuge from the rushed existence of our culture. 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. We have said it before, but hospitality is the language of rural life and food is its currency. Eating is never an end in itself, but a means to a deeper kind of relationship. Food provides a bridge for conversation, relationships, and even pastoral care. Many things have been shared over a piece of pie that would have never been expressed in a phone call or an email. But all of that takes time. When we worry too much about our schedules and not enough about each other we miss out on the rich opportunities that God has placed before us. Rushing in and out of a social setting, a meeting, or even a worship service, is not only bad manners, but it is also bad practice. Vital churches find the time to be in fellowship together, whether in the coffee time after worship, a meal following a funeral, or even a special night out with our fellow members. The form that fellowship takes is less important than the rewards that it brings.
Activity in the church is contagious – One of my students once did a study of the churches in his area and came to discover that churches where activity was present throughout the week were perceived to be more vital than churches that locked their doors Monday through Saturday. Even though worship is considered the primary public act of the church, it was the perception of activity that made the community feel that the church was a hopping place. It didn’t usually matter what the nature of the activity was, as long as it was church related. The mere presence of cars, people, and kids and the sight of the lights on in the building made many feel that this was a church of action. And some who were interviewed even expressed the opinion that they were more likely to attend that church because it seemed to have a lot going on. Don’t get me wrong. Activity for activity’s sake is never a good idea. But churches that expressed their faith by getting together throughout the week increased awareness of the church in the community, enhanced the possibility that others would wander in the doors, and helped their members feel that they were a part of something special.
Congregation size doesn’t really matter – Vital congregations come in all sizes, large and small, and express themselves in a variety of interesting ways. What they all have in common is a commitment to worship and serve Jesus Christ. Large churches have the benefit of an abundance of resources, enough members to always have a critical mass at any activity or gathering, and the ability to provide variety for many tastes, whether in worship, service or fellowship. On the other hand, small churches that have a strong sense of their mission in the community can have vibrant worship, a significant sense of purpose, and a feeling that what they do together really matters. The truth is that the size of the congregation cannot be used as an excuse for a lack of vitality in worship or community life.
Neither does worship style - The same is true for worship style. Much has been made of the worship wars, including the place of traditional or contemporary music, the use of a standard ordo or a free flowing format, and even the place and timing of the services. But the truth is that we find strong churches that fit in each of these categories. Style does not determine vitality. Far more important are the quality and integrity of the various elements of the service, the faithfulness to God’s Word, and the perception that each person was given the opportunity to truly encounter and worship and living God.
Inspired pastors influence vitality – The attitude that pastors and church leaders take into their work does make a difference. In fact, it can be contagious. When church members see that their pastor is excited about faith, they get the message that it matters. When the congregation sees that the pastor is more than a master of ceremonies in worship, but is committed to encouraging an encounter with the living God, they are more likely to be enthusiastic themselves. When a family feels that an emergency pastoral call in the middle of the night is an act of love and not an obligation, they realize that faith is more than mere words. On the other hand, when it feels like we are distracted, bored, or overworked (and we are letting it show), they are more likely to bring the same attitudes to their own spiritual lives and activities. Like it or not, we set the tone in everything we do. We establish the standard for the attitude of any gathering by the attitude we present. Vital churches have pastors who are inspired about their faith and are not afraid to share those feelings in all that they do.
As we enter this new era in the life of the Christian faith, it is important that each of us has our eyes on ways that we can effectively cultivate vitality in our churches. 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 as we re-imagine what the church can be.