I have been in Phoenix, Arizona this week presenting on Vital Congregations at the Religious Researchers Association of scholars and researchers in the field. This conference is jointly associated with the Society of Social Scientists of Religion. Since this is only the 2nd Academic Conference I have ever participated in, it has been a fascinating experience. There are a couple pieces that I want to highlight about this conference and about the multiple dimensions of vital congregations. First of all, we are not the only denomination seeking methods and answers to the challenge of decline across the church. The Southern Baptists have been challenged by a peak and then decline since 2004. The ELCA, the Presbyterians and the UCC are all looking at the reality of decline amongst their church membership. On the positive note, many of these denominations are looking at new methods, new experiments and new strategies to uncover what God is already doing in the world and what our role (as Christians) would be to support that work.
Of course when you think about health and vitality in any single church or district or conference, you have to look at it from a multi-dimensional perspective. One researcher produced a multi-dimensional assessment of congregational health and vitality that compared and contrasted the clergy perspective and the laity perspective of results and outcomes. Another research group have looked at qualities of church life in addition to the numerical objective measures. The biggest challenge that all these researchers face are the subjective challenges. In science you must control for certain variables. So, the real question becomes, “How on earth do you control for the uncontrollable variables?” For example, how do you control for a preachers’ abilities? How do you control for a congregations’ attitudes? (and not just one person but the whole congregation?) How do you control for the Holy Spirit’s ability to transform? Well, obviously these are the questions that keep on emerging.
There is one research study that has produced results that seem so obvious and simple that it’s hard to grasp how it could be true. But, my intuition and experience confirm these findings. This project basically said that there are only 2 FACTORS that have shown up across four countries and multiple congregations with multiple diversities and dimensions. It has everything to do with call and response!
The 2 FACTORS are VISION and COMMITMENT. When you control for almost every controllable variable, these two factors show up in direct affect to growth more than any other factor in the field. It’s kind of a “duh” moment, however it is SOOO true! Vision implies forward thinking and commitment implies investment. Therefore, hearing and heeding God’s call for any congregation is essential to VISION. Inviting, empowering and encouraging all leaders from young to old, to huddle around the VISION and take responsibility in your role in that vision is also essential to COMMITMENT. It seems so simple and yet, why is it so challenging to reach?
Well – the real question becomes “Is the CALL of God for our lives today is essential to the very being of who we are???” If so, “Are we willing to make the sacrifices in life in order to be COMMITTED to this CALL?” I’d like to hope that there are still a few faithful United Methodists who will and can respond with a resounding “YES – by God’s grace we will!!”
Amy Valdez Barker, Vital Congregtions