Late spring / early summer is a busy season in the life of the United Church of Christ—many annual meetings are taking place within conferences and associations. I was privileged to attend one such meeting and offer a keynote and workshop for the Minnesota Conference annual gathering in June. The theme of the meeting was “Embracing God’s Promise: A Future with Hope” based on Jeremiah 29:11; and the focus of my talk was on church vitality. A few excerpts are found below, and you can read the entire keynote and view accompanying slides on the Minnesota Conference website.
Many people have certain ideas about what vitality is or looks like. Most of the time, those ideas are not based on what the research actually tells us. So, before I tell people what vitality is, I usually spend quite a bit of time sharing what vitality is not so that our understandings of vitality can be deconstructed. In order to build something new, what was there before must sometimes be demolished.
Based on the majority of research conducted by our office and other denominations, we can state the following about what vitality is not:
- Vitality ≠ Size
- Vitality ≠ Growth
- Vitality ≠ Numbers
First, vitality is not about size. Research that the UCC and other denominations have conducted through the Faith Communities Today (FACT) Survey Project demonstrated that churches of any size can be—and, in fact, are—vital congregations. But the competing narrative—the story we often tell ourselves about ourselves—is that if we are not a large congregation or a large denomination, then we must not be very vital. This could not be farther from the truth! In fact, in the FACT 2015 Survey of nearly 1,000 UCC congregations representing churches of every size, 78% described themselves, in at least one area and sometimes in many areas, to be “spiritually vital and alive.”
To our detriment, we in the U.S. have been trained to mirror the patterns of our surrounding culture—industrialization and capitalism constantly tell us that “bigger is better.” The U.S. has the largest vehicles, the largest houses, yards, malls, cuts of beef, etc. in the world. If it’s not big, not visible enough, not showy enough, then it doesn’t count. This is dangerous thinking, especially for churches who are striving to live in the way of Jesus. Bigger is not better; it’s just bigger.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, vitality is not the same as growth. Because when most people think about growth, they think about numerical growth. If a congregation is not growing in membership and worship attendance, they think they are dying—this is simply not true! There are a number of factors that affect numerical increases—many of which have to do with the population and demographics in the church’s surrounding community. Most often, churches that grow exponentially are the ones that tend to be in growing suburban or urban areas. More people in the community results in more growth in a church over and above anything else; and this is something that is really beyond the control of congregations. I’ve seen many churches beat themselves up over not being able to attract tons of new people—when in reality, there aren’t any new people to attract in the first place. Context matters.
Unfortunately, we are saturated within a culture and economy of continual, unchecked growth. The “bigger is better” mentality of size is coupled with the notion that we must always be growing, always producing more, in order to have value and worth. Our whole economy is based on a growth economy; and we are patterned to work as hard as possible, at the expense of our own and our planet’s well-being, to ensure that constant growth. In addition, not all growth is good. Growth can be destructive when the processes and principles underlying that growth are corrupt—think of the movies Wall Street, The Big Short, or Wolf of Wall Street. Numerical growth should not be overemphasized.
On the other hand, not all numerical growth is bad…we know through our research that there is some relationship between vitality and growth; but they are still two very different things. Our own UCC research on congregations has showed that there is some sort of relationship between vitality and growth, albeit a pretty weak relationship, and has demonstrated that many of the same factors conducive to vitality are the same as those found in growing congregations. In addition, almost every vitality assessment tool in the market today tracks numerical growth. What we do know is that there is some level of relationship—just the strength and nature of that relationship remains mixed.
Lastly, vitality is not ONLY about numbers! We just talked about this in relationship to growth, but it goes deeper than that. This is very important: What we measure matters! Many congregations have developed patterns that place the primacy of numerical measurements as the sole way that they should measure their vitality. This is not without denominations telling them what numbers they need to report each year—and I, as director of the office which asks congregations to provide this data, am aware of this irony!
Our larger societal pattern has once again mirrored this focus; and the church universal has emphasized this in terms of caring way too much about two things in particular: people in the pews and dollars in the bank. Now don’t get me wrong; tracking these things is important. They help us to understand trends over time and can be used as partial measures for things like vitality; but they are not the sole measure. They are not the treasure, the end goal of what we should be striving to increase. Ultimately, people and dollars are either inputs—resources that help us to become vital and live out God’s purpose and mission for our congregations—or they are byproducts of what comes when a congregation lives into God’s mission and purpose for them. Other types of measurements are needed in order for us to really understand vitality.
To learn more about vitality, including what vitality is, please read the entire keynote and slide materials found on the Minnesota Conference website.
Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi is the director of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD). She is passionate about connecting congregational vitality and theology in ways that translate across all settings of the church.