by Bishop Bob Hoshibata
Two and a half months ago the lay and clergy leaders of our United Methodist congregations gathered in Glendale for our Desert Southwest Annual Conference. In my remarks to those assembled there, I spoke of the vision that God has given me as I serve with you as your bishop. I am passionate about bringing vitality to our local congregations and ministry settings (camps, campus ministries, and Chaplaincies, for example.) This would explain why as I visit churches around the conference, I pose the questions, “What is YOUR idea of vitality in a church?” My hope and expectation is that while we labor to bring our congregations “alive,” we need to be clear about what we are working toward. The vision for vitality is unique to each church. The leadership of each ministry, laity and clergy, must carefully and prayerfully determine a direction to take in bringing about vitality.
I know that it is not a simple task to determine what will lead to vitality in ministry. For some, vitality is determined by statistics that measure our achievement in a number of key areas. The general church has asked us all to track and report the number of baptisms that have taken place in each congregation; the number of new confessions of faith; the number of persons that are engaged in mission, and so forth. And while there is value to measuring these things, these are not the only measures we need to be aware of.
This is where our imagination comes into play. Imagine what it would look like for your church to be alive with the kind of activities that made a positive difference in the communities in which your church is located. What does God have in mind when God calls us to “make disciples of Jesus Christ” in your neighborhood. The power of imagination cannot be ignored. When we take some time to be in a creative mode, God speaks to us with powerful ideas. As we come together as a church and share these ideas and discuss them and then discern what God’s will is, we may surprise ourselves by the sheer volume of creative ideas for vitality. Not all of them will work; not all will succeed. But I firmly believe that unless we allow God to work within us and among us, we will have missed an opportunity to discern what God is calling us to become. The power of imagination, put to use in determining how to best make our ministries alive!
In sharing about my vision for a conference of vital congregations, I shared four key attributes of a church that was “vital.” Let me review those four for our consideration.
First, I believe that a vital congregation is one that knows its context and the demographics of the neighborhood surrounding the church campus. What are the joys and concerns of the neighborhood? Who are the neighbors living within close proximity of the church? So often, we miss acknowledging that the surrounding area has changed drastically in the past decade or two. God sometimes gives us new neighbors that speak different languages, represent different cultures and offer new opportunities to be in ministry. Too often, those new opportunities are not noticed, or if they are noticed, we ignore them or claim that we do not have the ability to reach out to these persons. The first critical characteristic of a vital congregation is the knowledge of your neighborhood.
Once a church is aware of its surrounding neighborhood and the people that live there, I believe a vital church has a sense of its mission and vision and sets goals for the future based on what God is calling it to do. How often have churches engaged in a long and tedious process of crafting a mission/vision statement only to have it adopted and then never used again? A vision for the church’s future is simplistically a statement of what God is calling you to be for this season in your life. Vision statements are meant to be revisited and revised as the world or the church’s circumstances change. At its best, a mission/vision helps us prioritize our work so that we are using our time, energy, and resources on things that really matter. When faced with a decision, a church might ask itself: if we do this, will we be working positively toward achieving our mission? If it does, then the action being proposed has more value than if it does not.
The third attribute of a vital congregation is one that has a system in place for measuring its success by the number of lives touched by sharing what being a disciple of Jesus Christ means with those in the neighborhood. So while the number of persons who have been baptized (and therefore are to be counted as “new disciples of Jesus Christ” is important for us to track, I believe that we need to ask ourselves whether we have touched lives in the name of Jesus Christ. IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. The critical difference is that we now understand that unlike a couple generations ago (when I was growing up), we cannot expect that we can simply build a church, open its doors, and invite people to come to us. Too many empty pews attest to the fact that this form of invitational evangelism is not as effective as it once was. Churches need to engage in missional evangelism, which reaches outside the walls of the church; that goes beyond the campus of the church, and boldly steps forth into the neighborhood that surrounds the church.
I have invited churches to take an inventory of all the many things they are doing to reach out to others. One list should include all that we do for others that assumes that they will come to the church. (Feeding the hungry at a church supper, inviting the public to a rummage sale, making the church available for pre-school children, or AA meetings, are just a few.) I am not saying that these are not valid ministries! But if you look at the other list, which should include ways in which we reach out to others by going into the community, you might be surprised to find that so little of what we do as a church is actually going to the people in our communities. (Great examples of these kinds of ministry are taking the church to a community celebration, offering a free meal in a park, helping to build a house in the neighborhood, distributing water bottles at a local shopping mall, to name a few.) How is your church measuring up in these two areas of service?
Finally, I believe it is crucial for each ministry to have a system of accountability in place to periodically evaluate our commitment to one another. The concept of accountability has been misunderstood as being synonymous with criticism. The Christian concept of accountability that I believe is crucial to our vitality is Wesleyan. As John Wesley gathered with other disciples in small groups, one of the things that the group would do was to ask how each had done in her or his Christian walk since the last meeting. The familiar question, “How is it with your soul” was posed, and with honest reflection, each person was held accountable to the group and to God for both the successes and failures of being true to one’s pledge to God. Churches engaging in creative ministry are prone to both successes and failures. I believe that it is important to celebrate our successes as well as to learn from and grow after our failures. And as we hold each other accountable, we also offer our triumphs to God and we ask for strength and determination and forgiveness from God when we do not succeed.
These four guidelines are meant to assist us as we all strive for vitality. My goal as your bishop is to work in partnership with you as we strive for vitality in our ministries. As we engage in our work together, it is also my prayer that God will bless us with joy and with fruitfulness in our churches and ministries!