On an evening in April 1999, our congregation held a worship service—the kind of service that pastors and congregations hope they’ll never have to host. Under a steady drizzle on a dark night, reflecting the mood of the community, people streamed into our worship center, which sits just blocks from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Kids brought their friends, clutching each other and wailing in grief. Some brought their Columbine High soccer T-shirts and hung them over our communion rail. One group brought a Columbine yearbook and placed it on the altar. When the service began with a hymn that implored God to “pour your power” on the church, to “cure our children’s warring madness,” and to “grant us wisdom . . . [and] courage” to face the hour,1 our worship center was already filled to capacity and overflowing.
On that night we did not have answers that could provide any meaning or explanation for the carnage and evil that had engulfed the high school the day before. We offered no quick fix for the pain and the huge, aching holes in all our hearts. All we had to offer was a story—the story of Jesus Christ, the one who himself was victimized and suffered an awful death, and yet is now raised from the dead. Why did God let this happen? Wrong question. Where was God when it happened? Great question! God in Jesus Christ took a bullet. He lay on the cold floor of the high school, in the library, and on the front steps, as the God who comes and suffers with his children. Yet this same God is risen. He refused to stay dead, because he loves us and is available to us for such a day as the one we had just suffered.
We were ready for that night because we are a vital congregation. We know who we are, and we are clear and consistent about the sacred story that shapes our life together and our mission in the world. We share the characteristics of countless vigorous local churches in North America’s age of post-Christendom. Such congregations challenge the notion that the North American church, especially the mainline, has seen its best days. Thriving congregations cannot be identified by a particular setting, size, or worship style. While some churches struggle to survive, the vibrant ones offer clues to renewing the church in North America, and signal that our postmodern, post-Christendom, secular age can be an exciting, opportune time to be the church (see box on page 17 for marks of a vital congregation).
Although diversity abounds among vital congregations in the ordering of their lives and the nature of their flagship ministries, a few statistical markers identify them. Just as blood pressure and cholesterol levels are indicators of personal health, so I believe, from my experience of studying lively parishes and teaching church leadership, that certain measurements indicate congregational vitality:
1. An overall upward trend in average weekly worship attendance. Although community demographics or congregational decisions may cause periodic dips in attendance, healthy systems show a general pattern of growth.
2. The percentage of members who worship weekly. Healthy systems exert a strong gravitational pull toward life together. Vital parishes usually report that more than 40 percent of members attend weekly. In some, weekly worship attendance exceeds membership. This is true not only of some evangelical congregations whose bar for joining is quite high, but also of some mainline ones.
3. Average giving of each household expressed as a percentage of household income. Because money and wealth are revered to the point of idolatry in our culture, one’s wallet is usually the last symbol of self to be converted to Christ. Vital churches show a trend of growth over time in the proportion of household income given by families or individuals.
4. The percentage of a congregation’s overall budget given for mission and ministries beyond its doors. In robust parishes, this percentage shows an increase over time. Christian communities that believe they are caught up in God’s mission for the world give themselves to the world rather than myopically focusing inward.
Certainly other factors indicate vitality, and these four are not invariable signs. But taken together, they paint a picture of relative health.
Theological Substance in a Market-Driven World
But congregational vitality is not about numbers. Statistics serve only to confirm the living community’s substance. The parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-9 explains in Jesus’ words how the church grows and thrives. It is God who causes the growth, and although quick and unsustainable starts are planted in various soils, a harvest eventually issues forth out of good soil. This soil is one of substance, unlike the soil in the parable that “had no depth” (Mark 4:5). For vital congregations in our culture, the good soil represents a rich theological loam, a story articulated with clarity and consistency, out of which a healthy church blooms with life-giving purpose.
Giving sustained attention to theology matters. The culture and even the churches live in confusion about the church’s identity and purpose. I do not suggest that all churches and their members should conform to some narrow, specific theological doctrine—quite the opposite. The authentic story that grounds the church—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is an account of immense substance, embracing the world as it is, offering hope that gathers people who come from a myriad of motivations and worldviews. The church’s story has such profound implications that it frees people to explore, question, struggle, and undergo transformation together in a community of faith. The story does not promise a “right” answer to every human dilemma. It empowers people to flourish and serve in a state of holy uncertainty. It offers assurance of the ultimate faithfulness and triumph of God over the forces that would cheapen or fragment our common life. After all, the claim of the church is not “He was risen,” but “He is risen.”
In today’s culture the story is often obfuscated or compromised. Market-driven forces would reduce it to a product or program. Much has been written about the collapse of Chris-tendom in North America; yet we still live with a Christendom hangover. One aspect of Christendom is the notion that the church and the culture share the same story and agenda. Why else would the United States have In God we trust engraved on its currency? During much of the 20th century the question of how the church should relate to the culture was a topic of theological debate. But my experience as a pastor trying to work through the Christendom hangover persuades me that the culture’s grasp of the church is limited to the notion that it exists primarily to serve the culture’s needs—or at least people’s needs. At the huge Barnes & Noble bookstore in my community, the “spirituality and religion” section is adjacent to the “self-help” section. This juxtaposition should tell us much about the culture’s perception of the church.
It is not surprising then, in this market-driven culture, that people relate to the church as consumers. If we think as consumers, we will likely separate God and the church from the rest of life. That is to say, God and the church may be construed as one component of a multifaceted lifestyle. People have their families, their careers, their health clubs, and, perhaps after enough church-shopping, they have their congregations. Using compartmentalized thinking, one affiliates with a church to get one’s spiritual needs met, as though spiritual needs could be distinguished from other needs. Through the programs and services the church offers, God and the church are subjugated to the role of serving the consumer.
In the congregation I serve, people who come to worship for the first
time, or after a long absence, often confess that “something is missing” from their lives. They hope the church can fill that void. One couple referred to the search for a congregation as the “icing on the cake” of their otherwise wonderful lives. These consumer Christians are generally unaware that the church has a story about God, life, and the world that is in tension with their market-driven lifestyles. Expecting perhaps a feel-good experience, they don’t anticipate the profound solidity of the story and its demand for a reordering of one’s life—that is, one’s hopes and dreams, and what captures one’s passions and allegiances. People receive more than they expected, and often receive it as astonishingly good news. It is rare that folk find the story so threatening that they leave the church, though that does happen. Last February before the invasion of Iraq, one of our lay deacons, leading the congregation in prayer, said, “Lord, as you commanded us to pray for our enemies, we pray for the salvation of Saddam Hussein.” A newer member was troubled by that prayer. From his perspective, patriotism had to weigh more heavily in this case than the Scriptures. God clearly had to be on America’s side, and the church had to support the destruction of Saddam. Since expressing these views to me, this man has rarely returned to worship.
A Tale of Two Stories
From the primitive days of the church, the community that organized itself around the exclamation, “He is risen!” lived in tension with the story of its culture. Though the two stories shared some common ground, their distinctions were more pronounced than their similarities. It is the same today in congregations where the church’s story is told and animated against the backdrop of the cultural narrative.
My family and I lived in Iran during the revolution that eventually led to the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. On Christmas Eve 1978, we were gathered around the Christmas tree in our home in Tehran. We were under a mandatory curfew; otherwise we would have worshiped in a local German church. On this night we would “do church” in our home. As nighttime fell, we heard the accustomed sounds of every night. Voices shouted in Farsi from the rooftops: “God is great!” and “Death to the Shah!” and “Death to America!” Just outside our door, a deafening rumble of armored military transports rolled by, taking soldiers to their positions in the city. Machine-gun fire and other eruptions of violence shook the neighborhood. Inside, my wife, a friend from the United States, and I were singing Christmas carols as loud as we could, to keep our small children, whom we held in our arms, from hearing the mayhem outside.
Two stories were being told that night. Told in the streets was a version of one of the oldest of stories, of Cain killing his brother Abel. That story has been re-enacted in every age—a tale of the quest for power and the use of force to seize it—and has never been resolved. The second story was disclosed in the words of our carols:
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”2
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.3 Only one of these stories will have the last word. The world organizes itself around the story of unresolved human conflict, power struggles, greed, and violence. The church organizes itself around the story of God, who comes to dwell with us, beginning as a defenseless baby, declaring peace and amnesty; being crucified, raised from the dead, and available to the church as the Living One. The distinction between the two is a question: do sin and death hold the last word, or does God? Being grasped by one story necessarily requires being in tension with the other.
Today our teenagers hear the culture saying that their value depends upon looks, the “right clothes,” sex appeal, popularity, and accomplishments. The church’s story tells them that they are inherently valuable just as they are. The world tells us to take control of our lives and to eliminate uncertainty. The church calls us to trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and to accept that living in ambiguity is not only healthy—it’s unavoidable. The world’s story tells us that personal failure is greatly to be feared. The church’s story lifts up Jesus Christ crucified as one rejected by all. The world tells us we have only limited resources. The church, declaring there is enough for all, calls us to reorder our lives so that others might live. The church’s story will always be in tension with the world’s.
Practicing Focused Theological Consistency
At Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado, we are clear about our practices as a congregation and the theology that informs them. We do not claim that ours is the only way of “doing church” today, but we do follow a way that seems authentic and that exhibits wonderful signs of vitality. We operate with the axiom “Less is more.” For a congregation of our size—2,000 members, with 1,000 in worship weekly—we do not have a plethora of ministries. We do a few essential ministries and try to do them with excellence. The prime focus is our worship life. The guiding statements of our congregation—mission, vision, and values—name worship as our essential expression of being the church. Though we follow the church’s ancient liturgical pattern and hold fast to some early church traditions, we also write pieces of our own liturgy—calls to worship, hymns, rites of confession and forgiveness, and prayers. As we write, we are mindful of grounding everything in the death and resurrection of Jesus and expressing the tension between our story and that of today’s world. We think of ourselves as being simultaneously traditional and contemporary. Some liturgical traditions unique to our congregation express our own understanding of the church and its gospel. For example, our calls to worship always end with these words:
Leader: O Jesus, thank you for this place, Congregation: That is always filled with your grace.
When we celebrate communion, the celebrant ties the themes of the day into an invitation to the table. We practice completely open communion. We believe that we come to the table not by our own merit. We come because God is good and freely gives the gifts of the Son to us. We do not care if one is a Lutheran, an adherent of another Christian tradition, a Buddhist, or an atheist. It doesn’t matter whether one is 100 years old or one day old. All are invited. Therefore, the invitation ends with a cue from the celebrant and the congregation’s acclamation, “The gifts of God are free!” These local traditions serve to underscore our insistence that the church is a safe place for people to allow God to “work on them” through the community.
Worship is of such prime importance to us that we do not have a competing Sunday school hour. We do not have Sunday school at all. Instead, we have discipleship training on selected Sunday afternoons for all ages. These discipleship training activities are not information based; they are built on multigenerational and creative experiences that seek to transform individuals through movement from the world’s story to the church’s story. Believing that the secondary arena for faith development is the home, we also create daily home-study materials for people to engage in God-talk in their homes.
We are adamant that full participation in worship is so important that we pray for the day when our average worship attendance exceeds our membership. We prepare people for worship by placing the scriptural texts for the coming weekend, along with questions to stimulate discussion, on our Web site and sending them by e-mail to all househo
lds of the congregation. Any church group that meets during the week uses these materials in its devotional time. Every group—whether it is a ministry team, a musical group, or a small-group discussion—spends its first 30 to 45 minutes together reflecting on the materials. In a suburban culture of overcommitted and fragmented lifestyles, this practice has taken hold of our people, thus disclosing its transformational power. It is amazing what delightful surprises can happen in a planned agenda when significant time is first spent in theological reflection.
Thirty minutes before each service we have a centering activity. People gather in small multigenerational groups to share personal concerns and to focus on a question that more fully prepares them to experience worship. The preaching and children’s sermons consistently take the gospel revealed in the texts for the day and use its richness to reframe our world and experience. The music ensembles that lead worship also meet before the service for their own centering. We work hard to use powerful music that is indigenous to our culture, while preserving the church’s ancient traditions. We take care in our song and hymn selection. With some contemporary music, we may take the liberty to rewrite or edit the words, with appropriate permission, so that they accurately express our theology. We are Lutherans and not fundamentalists.
We believe that if our worship is authentic to the story and relevant to our lives and our world, and if it is executed with excellence and care, then every other part of our life together, from the stewardship of our gifts and resources to the giving of ourselves in service to the world, will disclose passion and rich vitality.
Nine Characteristics of Congregational Vitality
The marks of a vital congregation include:
1. “God of Grace and God of Glory,” by Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969).
2. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” by Charles Wesley (1707-1788).
3. “Silent Night, Holy Night,” by Joseph.