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Vital Congregations pilot initiative impacts churches in Trinity Presbytery

Identifying strengths and key growth areas re-energizes congregations, giving them hope

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

(Left to right) Julie Walkup Bird, Robert Scotland, Jim Blackwater

LOUISVILLE — Now that churches in South Carolina’s Trinity Presbytery have gone through the seven marks of congregational vitality, as part of their participation in the two-year Vital Congregations initiative pilot program, pastors are beginning to notice a difference in their congregations.

As part of the initiative, congregations at Trinity have been studying these seven traits of congregational vitality: lifelong discipleship formation; intentional, authentic evangelism; an outward incarnational focus; empowered servant leadership; Spirit-inspired worship; caring relationships; and ecclesial health.

Last year, the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Vital Congregations coordinator, introduced the pilot initiative to Trinity to partner with them and their churches in intentional revitalization efforts.

After going through the seven marks, the Rev. Julie Walkup Bird of McGregor Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, said her congregation of about 280 members understands in a deeper way that “they are called not to be the church of yesterday, but of tomorrow.” They also were able to identify areas of strength, which gave them some things to celebrate, and point to areas of growth, where they need to put some energy.

Walkup Bird wasn’t surprised that what her congregation spoke most about was the evangelism piece in the seven marks. The word for Presbyterians, she says, brings up certain images or understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

“Our congregation found some very helpful scriptural pieces to engage more deeply with what it means to be engaged in evangelism and what it means to be an evangelist,” she said. “And how we might find ways to redefine that word, concept and mark for us as a congregation.”

The Vital Congregations Initiative has given Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, South Carolina, a foundation to build on. The Rev. Robert Scotland said that studying the seven traits of congregational vitality has helped create excitement in the church — and re-energized the congregation to consider the next steps for ministry beyond the church’s walls. Shiloh is working on creating a presence in their local schools — and becoming more of a part of supporting mission around the world.

Congaree Presbyterian Church in Cayce, South Carolina, was down to 20 members when commissioned lay pastor Jim Blackwelder joined them less than a year ago. As their new pastoral leader, Blackwelder noticed they lacked joy in worship.

“If there’s no joy, things aren’t exactly right,” he said.

Now the church is up to 70 members — with around 40 to 50 worshippers on Sunday mornings.

“They needed a different perspective,” said Blackwelder, “to crawl out of the hole.”

As they were rebuilding, Blackwelder said he felt like the Vital Congregations initiative was geared for them — giving Congaree a focus for Christ-centered ministry. And now, congregation members are asking how they might reach communities that are rapidly changing.

“They feel good about their church again,” he said. “They have hope again.”

Churches in Newark and San Jose presbyteries are also participating in the two-year pilot Vital Congregations Initiative.

And 14 additional presbyteries, listed here, will begin preparing to participate in the Vital Congregations initiative, in East and West Coast gatherings, next month as part of the first wave of the Vital Congregations launch at the 224th General Assembly in Baltimore in 2020.

The Office of Vital Congregations is part of the PC(USA)’s Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry.

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