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What does a vital congregation look like?


Presbyterian Mission Agency Board considers key characteristics of living out Matthew 25

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill talks to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board about the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality while the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III listens. (Photo by Rich Copley)

BALTIMORE — The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III turned to history and the cinema to open a conversation about congregational vitality on the first day of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s February meeting on Wednesday.

Jones was nine years old, he said, when he first encountered the story of Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist known as Moses, who saved more than 70 people from slavery. But the scene he invoked was from the Oscar-nominated biopic, “Harriet,” which came out last fall. Tubman is ready to flee her home and master the first time, and she goes to her church, where her pastor counsels her.

“He speaks these words to her: ‘You remember, fear is the enemy,’” said Jones, director of the Theology, Formation & Evangelism (TFE) ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “My goodness, y’all. In the church, fear is the enemy. Fear about change is the enemy. Fear about confronting people is the enemy. Fear about doing God’s justice work is the enemy.

“And then he said, ‘Trust God.’

“That’s what congregational vitality is about. It’s dealing with our fear of a powerful Spirit and trusting God to be the people of God.”

Jones was leading into a discussion by the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill about the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality, which is one of the three components of the Matthew 25 invitation, along with dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty. The three components go hand-in-hand, both ministers said.

Threadgill, who is the Vital Congregations coordinator for TFE, talked about her work in a two-year pilot program with presbyteries around the country to grow vital congregations.

“We’re striving to be Matthew 25 churches and see how the Spirit of God is leading them into change and new vital life together,” Threadgill said. “We know that Christ is doing a new thing. So our job is as the people of God is to receive that new thing together and be there to be a part of it.”

She went on to enumerate the seven marks, defining what a vital congregation is and isn’t.

  1. Lifelong discipleship formation vs. complacent “Christian” piety, simply teaching good morals or offering the latest programs
  2. Intentional, authentic evangelism vs. “Jesus freaks;” “Christian” hypocrisy; a committee
  3. Outward incarnational focus vs. inward institutional survival; closed communities of assimilation/exclusion
  4. Empower servant leadership vs. the pastor’s job; monopolized leadership; hiring the young, energetic pastor
  5. Spirit-inspired worship vs. self-gratifying worship, stale ritual divorced of meaning, or consumer entertainment worship
  6. Caring relationships vs. any other social club; façades, hypocrisy, and judgment of “church” and “religion”
  7. Ecclesial health vs. unhealthy dysfunction; toxic environments; obsolete and irrelevant buildings

“We believe that if we show these marks — like Thomas needed to see the marks of Jesus and feel them in order to believe that was the risen Christ — we believe that if people can see and feel these marks within their congregations then they will come to know and believe their Lord and Savior is in Jesus Christ,” Threadgill said. “That’s what we’re after in congregational vitality.

“Notice I didn’t say anything about our buildings, our budgets, or butts in the seats. Congregational vitality is about spiritual faithfulness. It’s about following where Christ is leading the church in a 21st century, North American context, where Christ has planted these particular churches, given them life and vital life together, so that they can in fact be Matthew 25 churches, sharing and living out of vision together.”

But those are not easy steps to take, Threadgill and Jones said, pointing to challenges from the inertia of tradition and comfort to the fears of stepping out into areas of ministry that can be fraught with fears of failure, rejection and — often the hardest hill for churches to climb — change.

Presbyterian Mission Agency Board members discussed the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality around their tables. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The leaders had members of the board get into small groups and consider one of the marks each and the challenges and opportunities they brought.

In conversation, the groups brought up points like Jesus’ encouragement in John 14 that those who believe will do greater things than Jesus’ works, that they needed to combat a “this is how we’ve always done it” attitude, consumerist attitudes that demand a pastor follow the congregation’s wishes, and victories such as a church that gave its property to an indigenous community in a form of reparations.

“Authentic evangelism is dangerous,” according to the Rev. Floretta Barbee-Watkins of Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Floretta Barbee-Watkins of Charlotte, N.C., noted how the president will never go against the direction of his security detail, but Pope Francis is known for sneaking out of the Vatican to work with the poor.

“Authentic evangelism is dangerous,” she said.

And for inspiration in that regard, the board saw a video about five women at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Lomita, California who reached out to one person in a camp for people who were homeless and ended up creating an empowering ministry for all involved.

Church member Becky Adams observes, “Matthew 25 has really energized our congregation in amazing ways.”

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