Seven Marks of Vital Congregations Part Six
We are working our way through the seven marks of vital congregations. Today we come to number six. Let’s take a moment and review where we have been.
1. Lifelong Discipleship Formation
– going to church. Christianity means following Jesus 24/7, a life shaped by his teaching.
2. Intentional Authentic Evangelism
– time to “good news” our culture. And in order to do that with authenticity, it must come from the heart.
3. Outward Incarnational Focus
– partnering, bridge-building with neighbors, other congregations, even interfaith projects
4. Empower Servant Leadership
– Serving our world is our job together, not the pastor’s job or handed to paid staff, nor burning out good volunteers. Find people’s strengths and help them work within those.
5. Spirit-Inspired Worship
– joyful, spontaneous, from the heart of all the worshipers, participation. Heart-focused.
6. Caring Relationships
– we are not a social club, but gathered in the particular love of God, loving-kindness. See how they love one another!
7. Ecclesial Health
– healthy participation by all, investment in the work of changing the world; less about maintenance of buildings or programs. We will get to more on this next week.
Yesterday at the Presbytery meeting, I met with the other 12 churches who are participating in the Vital Congregations Initiative in our presbytery. One of the unique things about this particular program is that it is done in cohorts – supportive groups of people working on the same project and sharing ideas, encouragement and prayer. I felt encouraged to see what some of the congregations are already doing – even the over-achievers who have done much of the initial year’s work even though the program doesn’t launch until January of 2020. I also felt encouraged that we are part of this group, have some of the same questions as the other churches and that we are not alone on this journey. In the bridges we have already built with our neighborhood over the last 11 or 12 years, we have a strong foundation to do this work.
The Vital Congregations Initiative is a 2-year program to assess congregations in their communities to find out where they should focus their work in one of three directions 1) Should we re-develop and transform? 2) Should we partner with other churches in mission and worship? Or 3) Should we decide we are ready to leave what we have done as a legacy to the next generation, the next ministry to inhabit this space. These are hard questions, yet we can’t avoid them.
We are at the end of an era. The end of Christendom, where the church has been an institution of power and influence, when the church was respected and expected to lead. Statisticians and church leaders foresee that 30% of churches will close in the next decade. It is a harsh reality, and, ironically, it is also hopeful. That is the point of this initiative. Together, to face this change with hope that God is indeed still at work among us, just in different ways and we need to learn to lean into these new ways. This massive cultural change may actually be a good thing to get us reconnected to Jesus, our guide, our source, our shepherd. We can reonnect with each other, relying on the community of grace, love and peace, without the burdens of power, big budgets and political voice.
Remember, “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8:28). So, be not afraid! God has not abandoned us and never will. “Though I walk through the shadow of death, you are with me.” We have a loving God who guides us like a gentle shepherd. And we have each other in a community of loving-kindness.
This assurance of not being alone is the sixth mark of vital congregations – Caring Relationships. We could say that this is the one mark which most characterizes true
Jesus-community. John 13:35 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” One of the early observations of Christians by outsiders was, “See how they love one another!” [Tertullian, The Apology, ch. 39]
“Caring relationships” – we understand this mark of vitality. Many congregations would say: “this is why we come together; we welcome and care for each other. We’ve got this one!”
Yet, caring relationships in Christ are more than enjoyable Bible Study colleagues and dinner companions and work teams and pew mates. They are more than smiling and saying hello. Like this story from one of the vital congregations leaders:
He never felt as if he had a place to belong, a place where he was accepted. For twenty years, life circumstances had left him homeless. Yet life had not left Steven bitter. On the contrary, Steven quoted the Word of God in all things. He walked through the breakfast line in the basement of the church every single morning, and would greet you with a resounding testimony to the glory of God. Steven’s friendly demeanor and constant affirmation of the Lord, made him an easy relationship for the youth of the church. As the youth began to worship with the homeless community in the sanctuary on Sunday evenings and to dine around table fellowship afterwards, there was an evident shift, a sort of softening about Steven that began to intrigue me. After one Sunday evening worship service, Steven approached me and said: “You’ve done a good thing, Rev.” What initially threw me in this exchange was that Steven’s disposition was more somber and serious. “What’s going on with you,” I asked? “Rev,” he said shaking his head, struggling to collect words. “I’ve been coming into the basement of this church for twenty years for y’all to serve me breakfast. And I’ve been grateful. Lord knows I’ve been grateful. But you know this is the first time I’ve ever been invited and feel welcomed to come into God’s house, into the sanctuary of this building, and worship!?”
What was Steven saying? He had always been served, people did kind things for him, but he had never before felt included, as one with the congregation. He was always at a distance, but now he was with them, in the center. The kind of inclusion Steven felt in that moment changed him. It wasn’t just doing good, it was loving embrace. Steven could tell the difference, and so can we all.
What are the characteristics of caring relationships which mark vital congregations? Remember that long list I read from Romans 12? This is probably another of Paul’s grand rambles and run-on sentences, rather than a clearly thought out list. So let’s try to boil it down.
Caring Relationships put others first. Essentially, it is to see all others as Christ sees them, the one who gave up all divine honor and power to become human, to become a servant of humans. From the greatest place, Jesus chose the place of service. We give up our judgments or preconceived notions, our keeping at arm’s length. This kind of incarnation is what Steven felt.
Caring Relationships are about walking with others, responding to their needs, desiring their well-being, in tragedy and in triumph. Susan Cain, writing about love, remembers her grandfather: “Exclaim over whatever is exclaimable in people. I learned this from my grandfather, who was forever marveling at other people’s attributes: their height, their wit, their athleticism—all personal qualities, for him, seemed to exist in order to be celebrated. 
Caring relationships celebrate each other. Caring relationships also hold each other in the dark times. There is no change in the ties in good times or bad. We are fully honored no matter what. Paul said it this way: outdo each other in showing honor.
Caring Relationships are about allowing people to be real, without hiding or holding back anything of their stories, and loving every imperfect part of them. Caring relationships are about vulnerability and trust. Church should be the place of eternal second chances. It is not always happy or easy, but it is good.
Caring relationships take intention. We do not naturally fall into this kind of relationship. It is easier to let our relationships fall into ruts and not go deep, to that soul place of joy and healing. One of the places I have seen this happen most is when we pray together, when each of us voice our prayers aloud, together. Prayer partners, small prayer groups, Night Prayer.
We can learn to be more loving. Let me offer one practice which can bring more love into our lives. It is called “Loving-kindness meditation or prayer.” I have it written out for you on the table in the back, so you can take it home with you. Let’s practice together. I will guide you.
1. Close your eyes and start to breathe deeply. Remember that the Holy Spirit is within you like your very breath. Engage your imagination, your mental movie screen.
2. Now, picture someone you love deeply. Let your heart open towards this person. Seeing this person, bless them: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be at ease.” Repeat it several times.
3. Now the scene changes. Picture yourself. Focus intently on yourself like looking at yourself in a mirror. Bless yourself: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be at ease.” Repeat it several times.
4. Now, picture a stranger. You don’t have to visualize exactly what he or she looks like but think of anyone that you don’t know very well. Bring this person to the forefront of your mind and send these same blessings to this stranger: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be at ease.” Repeat.
5. Finally, picture that most difficult person in your life. Someone you might be harboring ill-will towards or someone who has recently upset or hurt you. Bring the image of this person into your heart and offer this person the same blessing: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be at ease.”
That’s all there is to it. Five minutes a day is all it takes. As you get familiar with this practice you may develop your own blessing words. And as you keep with the practice, it will begin to seep into you life every day. And you may just find yourself becoming a more loving person.
It is the most simple and significant of commands, “you shall love the Lord your God, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet it is, in truth, the most difficult thing to live into. Christ’s true and perfect love, is when the Spirit of Christ dwelling within me, meets the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you, when we see in each other only Christ. May it be so among us.
 “5 Practices for Cultivating More Loving Relationships,” by Susan Cain; https://www.quietrev.com/5-practices-for-cultivating-more-loving-relationships/