September 2009
Small Church Ministry

What is a “vital small congregation?”

They gather every week, just as they have done for over seventy-five years now. Different generations have come and gone, although the city in which they find themselves looks different than when their church was founded. What started as a church comprised almost exclusively of families whose backgrounds were from England and northern Europe has changed.

Now they are more diverse; they look a lot like the people they are called to serve. In those seventy-five years, although they have never grown larger than about forty people on a typical Sunday morning, they have remained a strong and visible presence in their community.

Everybody in town knows about them — knows about the ways they have responded to the needs of the town — knows that the church has always served as a clear voice and a beacon of hope, even as other churches went silent, dark.

This congregation’s story is not all that different from the stories of many Episcopal churches across the land, for there are thousands of small, prospering Episcopal congregations that respond to their communities as a vibrant and driving force. Still, some small congregations thrive while others close their doors. Some congregations are vital and alive; others are not. Why?

A vital congregation is a community of faith which:

  • Invites people to become passionate followers of Jesus Christ
  • Creates opportunities for personal and corporate transformation
  • Equips and empowers people for gospel mission in the world

This definition says nothing about a congregation’s mission, size or budget, whether it is rural or urban, whether it can afford the services of full-time clergy, or where it is located — yet all congregations have the potential to be “vital” congregations. How can that vitality be best understood? “Invites people to become passionate followers of Jesus Christ.”

Much is proclaimed about “forming Christian leaders” in the Church today. One of the great challenges we face, however, is that be- fore we can form leaders, we must first form Christians. Christian formation is a lifelong process. This invitation contains three necessary dimensions: teaching people how to pray; teaching people how to engage the Scriptures; and teaching people how to live in community.

Congregations which are intentional and strategic about forming Christians — at every step along that life path — create a culture where the deepening of every member’s faith experience lies at the heart of the life of the community.

If our lives aren’t changed by being a part of a faith community, then what’s the point of being there? Communities of faith are places where my life can be changed, but they’re also places where our life can be changed as well as the holy People of God.

Transformation is that process of being made new; it’s about believing that the person that I am, and the community of which I am a part, is constantly being invited into a new relationship with God. Transformation is about believing that every time the Church gathers — whether it be for a worship service, a bishop’s committee or vestry meeting, a Bible study, an evening at the local soup kitchen, or a summer softball game — every time the Church gathers, we do so with the belief that we will leave that encounter as different people than we were when we entered.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about “me,” and it isn’t even about “us.” It’s about fulfilling the Great Commission to go out into the world. Vital congregations are those which give people the necessary tools — spiritual, technical, social, emotional, etc. — to “be the heart and hands of Jesus in the world,” for in the world where the church is ultimately called to be. We are not a cloistered community of prayer, defending ourselves from the assaults of the world around us. We are only the Church when we are fully integrated into the lives, the culture, and the daily experi- ence of our wider community. It does, how- ever, provide an opportunity to explore some real-life, incarnated examples of congregational vitality.

Considering the three characteristics named above, where are your own congregational strengths? Where might you continue to deepen and enrich your common life together? How might you even more fully live into the community which God is calling you to become? Seize the moment. Seize the day. With God, seize the opportunity to change the world.

Formerly the rector and vicar for several small congregations, the Rev. Bob Honeychurch is now the Program Officer for Congregational Vitality for the Episcopal Church.

This article is part of the September 2009 Vestry Papers issue on Small Church Ministry