Part 1 of “Seven Marks of Vial Congregations” series
In 2020 the Presbyterian Church USA will launch an initiative to help churches bring new energy and vitality to their congregations: the Vital Congregations Initiative. Honestly, the first response, even from those who attended the pre-launch training, was a bit dubious. How is this different from the last program for congregational renewal, or the one before that, or the one before that? Some of the pastors there could remember the names of the programs rolled out about every decade of their ministry lives. What is promising about this one? Why should we get involved? These were the questions bubbling around the tables at meal times.
At the Denver training, I saw two things that were different from any programs I have seen in the past. One is that the the materials and presentations were done by the young, the under-40 group. They were also diverse in gender and race. It was the youngers leading the olders – most of the people from the churches were over 50, and mostly white.
The other thing I noticed is that it is an initiative based on networking. This is new. And this feature made people the most uncomfortable. They/we expected somehow, to be presented with a program, neatly bound up in a book, and to be trained in how to use it. But it didn’t work that way. (There was a book, handed to us the second day, which arrived straight from the printers, before the leaders had seen the final product and could coordinate their presentations with the book’s page numbers!) But really, the book was our homework. It was not what we were there for.
Instead, the key feature of the training was to gather and to collaborate with other people in our presbytery, to imagine together what a “Vital Congregations Initiative” might look like in our own setting. This is not simply a program you can buy from the Presbyterian Publishing House and use in your church. The point of the conference was more like a presbytery retreat for brainstorming how we can bring new life to our congregations – together. The together part is new.
And here is a key, perhaps: it is an initiative, not a program. There are resources offered, sure. But the focus is on facilitating congregations and presbyteries to team up, to pray for each other, to work together, to collaborate. The vitality of congregations is in the collaboration. That is where the juice is! This should resonate with us – a bridge-building congregation. It is right up our alley!
Think of it this way: We know the basics of making fire, right? Rub two sticks together, or rap two pieces of flint together, strike a match on a box. Same basic principle: rub two things together and it makes a spark, starts energy that was completely absent until contact was made. This is how the Holy Spirit works. Get people together and sparks of life happen.
The whole initiative is undergirded by a vision of the community of Jesus followers after Pentecost. They were all together in one place. They ate together, prayed together, put all their resources together. They were “all in.” Body, soul, spirit, they were fully present with each other. And in that context, things happen.
Yesterday, Rabbi Brian and I invited spiritual directors we know to gather and imagine how they could benefit in their work from building relationships with each other. There are probably hundreds of Spiritual Directors in the metro area. Together, we knew 40 or so of them and invited them. Six came. So we were eight of us in the Parlor. I told the group that when you get eight creatives in a room, things happen. Soon the conversation began. We threw out a question. Responses started slowly, but pretty soon the energy picked up, the shyness wore off and we began to find some powerful commonalities in what we do. And then ideas started to flow. How could we encourage people in our chaotic times to pursue their deeper, more purposeful life. We only scratched the surface, but a new camaraderie was born. Who knows what will come of it, but we agreed that we wanted to continue to meet and to invite others into the room. It was like striking a match and getting fire!
Another illustration of collaboration. Our Morning Bible Study is off to a running start, with the largest group in attendance we have had in a long time at 17! We study the Bible, seeking to know what God would have us do and be in this world. I wonder what kind of fire will be lit through this collaboration of study.
The first mark of vital congregations is “Lifelong Discipleship Formation.” In the past, when I thought about discipleship, it seemed like a solo, journey. Putting discipleship in the context of collaboration, though, brings it to life. It isn’t something we are asked to do alone. We don’t do faith solo. Wow!
Discipleship is about re-patterning our lives with following Jesus as the focus. Following permeates our daily practices. I have often been a little envious of Jewish practice. One of the spiritual directors yesterday made the same comment. They have built into their tradition daily practices to shape their identity, from touching the mezuzah as they go in and out of their door, to saying 100 blessings a day, to lighting candles and blessing each other as the sun sets on Friday. Can we bring practices like these into our daily lives to train us for the race set before us?
Luke tells the story of the earliest disciple community. He names four elements to which they were devoted. Now, that is an interesting choice of words, ‘devoted.’ We tend to associate devotion to relationships of love and I think that is exactly what Luke is trying to convey. They were passionate about these things. These practices gave them life, filled them with joy and awe. They loved doing these things. It was not grit-your-teeth discipline. It was their life and breath and delight.
Devotion One. The first disciples soaked up the teaching of the apostles. They wanted to know every detail of what Jesus said. They wanted to hear the stories about him. They were inspired, which kept them coming back over and over again.
As lifelong disciples, we are formed by the stories and teachings we take in. So, what DO we take in? To what do we regularly expose our gray matter? Whatever it is, it builds the neuropathways that form our thinking and our doing. As many of you know, I have decided not to expose my brain to much news media. I do not want to be exposed to the violence of news for profit. The philosophy of today’s news is: If it bleeds, it leads. News is designed to trigger our fear response in order to grab our attention, increase the viewer numbers and in the end, make money for the news media companies. I choose not to fill my mind with this kind of violence.
Or there is the other extreme – addiction to soap operas and romance novels. These are clearly not real, yet we can waste our hearts on the visions they plant in our minds.
So what do you feed your brain? Is it an intentional choice, or does it just happen? The first disciples were making a choice. They were filling their minds with the hope of the Kingdom of God, of healing miracles, of love, of a call to go out and do the same. What would happen if we all chose to read the same verses of Scripture every day? Or we read the same book together as a congregation? Can you see how that would change the shape of our life together?
Devotion Two: The first disciples hung out with the apostles and other followers. Faith Sherrill was on to something when she suggested the Not Yet Supper Club. She knew we needed the strength of community which comes when we spend time together. Others have done this informally, meeting for meals or outings. This kind of sharing life, also shapes us. With whom do we share life? When you get home from your times together, what do you feel? Was it an encouragement, or did you spend your time complaining? Did your time in any way shape your hopes and dreams? The early disciples hung out with the people they wanted to be like. Do we?
Devotion Three: The first disciples prayed. They were devoted to prayer. They attended the Temple prayers faithfully. It was where they met with others who were passionate about God. And they prayed in their homes. We Presbyterians have often thought of prayer as the professional purview of ministers. Like, you have to have a degree to say a prayer? Not true. They say everyone prays in a fox hole. And it may not be pretty. But it is the heart’s cry to God, in hope that there is more to this life than appears on the surface.
And it doesn’t just happen in crisis. Prayer is an act of faith in the God who is more than life-as-it-appears-on-the-surface. And that God is alive and well and loving and powerful. Start praying at home. And pray out loud. Start by reading a prayer. Maybe the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe the prayer in the Bible Study guide, or a home devotional. I have shared with you my prayer: “Lord, send us the people and resources to do what you are calling us to do.” You can pray it with me. Write it on your mirror and remember to pray it every time you walk by the mirror.
(Move to the table)
Devotion Four: The first disciples ate together. Eating together is sacred. Feeding our bodies and feeding our souls go together. When we gather for a committee meeting, it makes a difference if there is food offered. It just changes the feel, the friendship, the connection. I don’t really understand it, but eating with someone is holy.
Today, we eat together as an act of worship. On World Communion Sunday, we remember that this is a meal shared with followers everywhere around this globe. We don’t eat a lot of food. It is only a taste. A taste which gives us a yearning for more – more of Spirit, more of Jesus, more of the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe. When we eat, these same flavors remind us of who we are, the stories of faith handed down through our community. Today, may this food connect us with each other, and with devotion to the story and the hope that God is alive and well and willing to join us in making the whole world the realm of God.