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Church Development? Church Vitality? What’s That to MY Church?

     Four years ago, when I was called as Associate for Church Development & Renewal, it was understood that “Church Development” meant starting new churches in places and ethnic communities where UCC had little or no presence.  As I and the Church Development Implementation Team (CDIT) worked with the new churches in our Conference, however, it occurred to us that the Conference’s mission priority being implemented applied not just to “new” churches or “renewing” churches but to all churches.  After all, if developing a church involves attracting new people, teaching them about God’s good news and developing leaders and disciples, should not those activities be essential elements of any healthy church’s mission?  Without vitality, how can a church be an effective  force for God’s justice in the world?  Church development, we concluded, is important for the vitality of churches large and small, progressive and conservative, and of any ethnicity.

     This understanding of church development and vitality was validated by both the Conference Self-Study and the last Annual Gathering.  The Self-Study found, among other things, that many people were eager to understand how to help their local church become a more vital ministry.  And at the 2009 Annual Gathering, when we had a parade of the 19 new or affiliating churches in this Conference since 2000, the overwhelming response was, “this is wonderful;  how do we get this energy into my church?”

     Over the last six months or so, CDIT has set out to answer this question in collaboration with the Conference Board of Directors.  On January 23 the Board adopted a new church-development plan (recommended by CDIT) that envisions the Conference as filled with increasingly vital churches and the vitality of our local churches as a principal mission of the conference.  It offers programs over the next three years that can help any church become stronger and healthier.  It also includes a vision statement that considers the context of our churches, the UCC and the culture of Southern California and Nevada and concludes that nothing short of a New Reformation is underway and that we are being called to respond by rethinking every aspect of local church and conference life.  A copy of that Vision and Plan is available from the Conference Office or at http://scncucc.org/church_development/church_dev.htm.  CDIT and I would love to have your comments and input to this living document, which we intend to update regularly over the next three years. 

     But what IS a vital church?  How do you tell if your church is vital or not?  I hope we can have conversation about this question as well.  Here are a few observations I hope will get us started.

     First, church vitality is a journey, not a destination.  It is a process of becoming a more effective ministry to the community the church serves.  As such, it isn’t possible for a church to be TOO vital, to not be able to become a more vital church tomorrow than it is today. 

     Vital churches come in all sizes, as do churches without much energy for their mission.  They just need to be large enough to be effective.  Vital churches may or may not be growing, but they are self-supporting or headed in that direction and they are energized by their common mission, not by concern for their survival. 

     Diane Butler Bass, in her research project documented in The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church, noted several other elements of a vital mainline church.  She observed that vital churches have traditions, but are not paralyzed by traditionalism.  They experiment with new practices, programs, and liturgies, and continually examine their traditions to be certain they are currently helpful.  They also believe in faithfulness, not fundamentalism.  They want to distance themselves from narrow forms of religion and they strive to develop wisdom rather than search for certainty. 

     It seems to me this is a pretty good starting point for conversation about what matters in developing a vital church.  For now, I would only add that a vital church must understand that it needs to be connected to other churches and cannot be independent if it is to be part of God’s creation.  In last week’s lectionary scripture (1 Cor. 12), Paul suggests Christ’s body as an analogy for the interconnectedness of churches.   And, of course, no one local church can ever be the totality of Christ’ body, of God’s mission in creation.   For instance, as we seek to become increasingly vital churches, a key part of the strategy will be to gather church leaders to share ideas.  Justice work also often is most effective when engaged by groups of congregations.  And a church has a stronger identity if joined together with other churches in a common mission.  We all have a stake in each other’s vitality, like it or not.

     Helping all our churches with their vitality is my personal calling and I am energized by it.  It is also central to our work together as a Conference and I hope you are similarly excited at the prospect.  CDIT is eager for your feedback, your critique, even your disagreement.  I hope you will respond to this message freely.  We need your ideas and your passion.

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