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Vital Congregations Initiative helps one church talk about faith

Bay Area church goes deep into the mysteries of God

The Rev. Sammie Evans and congregation members are getting to know one another at a deeper level thanks to their participation in the Vital Congregations Initiative from Presbyterian Mission Agency. (Courtesy of Stone Church of Willow Glen)

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Louisville — One of the first Presbytery of San Jose meetings the Rev. Sammie Evans attended as the new pastor at  Stone Church of Willow Glen was to hear a presentation from the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill on Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Vital Congregations Initiative, which is designed to help churches live more faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Having just moved to San Jose from Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, where she’d participated in a 1001 New Worshiping Communities residency program, the language resonated with her.

“There’s such a great overlap between the 1001 movement and vital congregations,” Evans said. “Immediately I saw the initiative as a way to get to know my new congregation — and to build a shared language around our experience of faith.”

As part one of her first reports to the session, she presented the initiative as a tool for ruling elders to consider using as part of their work getting to know each other.

“We were already a very busy, active church,” Evans said. “I told them I felt true ambivalence about adding this, because I was new — and also because of any anxiety it might produce.”

As the session brainstormed how the elders might work through the initiative’s seven marks of congregational vitality, session members decided to go through each one month by month.  In May, the session voted to participate in the initiative — and 35 people signed up.

Evans, who preached a sermon series on church vitality as part of the revitalization initiative launch, said worshipers have appreciated talking about their experiences as an intergenerational church — describing the church as a unique place.

“I’ve encouraged them to go deeper to get behind what has facilitated that kind of community,” Evans said, “to discover how God might be calling us as a result of that.”

As Stone Church of Willow Glen goes through the initiative, she has noticed a couple of other things.  As they go deeper into scripture, people who have known each other for decades are learning new things about one another.

“It’s been extraordinarily meaningful to me, to be vulnerable with them as we share our stories,” she said.

Evans also had conversations with the congregation about the Bible studies for the seven marks, which have a more evangelical bent to them. That’s been fascinating to her.

“It seems my generation is more evangelical,” Evans said. “I don’t know if that’s because we’re young and the world hasn’t made us cynical or jaded yet — or if it’s what the Spirit is doing.”

“We feel a responsibility as a body of individuals to build a more just world — one that is more generous and peaceful,” she said.  “Ultimately I believe this is evangelism — the work of the church.”

Members and friends have been able to express the discomfort they feel with the word “evangelism.” Hearing her integrate evangelism with justice has helped parishioners let go of some of the negative connotations they have with the word.

“It’s been cool to go deeper into their understanding of evangelism,” Evans said, “and to see them become less reticent of talking about God and faith — and the mysteries of God in the world.”

Adams is also part of the Vital Congregations pastoral cohort at the Presbytery of San Jose, one of the pilot presbyteries participating in the two-year initiative before it’s launched nationally at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 224th General Assembly (2020) in Baltimore.

“Recently our cohort group had a retreat — 11 of us were there,” she said. “It was the most meaningful thing that’s happened since I’ve been here. I was reminded that none of us are called to do this work alone. It was so great to strategize, dream and discuss ways that we might become more vital as congregations in our presbytery.”

The Office of Vital Congregations is part of the PC(USA)’s Theology, Formation and Evangelism ministry. To download a basic information packet for presbyteries interested in going through the revitalization process, click here.

The 220th General Assembly (2012) of the PC(USA) declared a commitment to a churchwide movement that results in the creation of 1001 new worshiping communities over the next 10 years.  At a grassroots level, 455 diverse new worshiping communities have already formed across the nation.

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