Over the past couple of months, I have been asking colleagues, experts, and friends, as well as the occasional passerby, what a healthy congregation looks like. Sometimes, the first response is a long pause followed by a sigh, especially if it is a pastor responding. The response is telling.
Congregational health is hard to define these days and may seem remote to overworked, over-stressed pastors ministering in the midst of what is called a cultural “massive discontinuous shift.” The old formulas and metrics don’t fit as well as they used to. The church, once comfortably “dominant” and “mainline” in American culture, is being pressured and marginalized from all directions.
Dying churches are a reality and one we would rather not discuss. A parishioner once said to me, “I hate it when you use the word, ‘death.’” But if memberships, baptisms and budgets are the measure of church vitality, then death is an apt metaphor. There is good news about that, however. Numbers are not the only way, nor, perhaps, the best way, to gauge the life of a church. Numbers matter, of course, but what else counts? What vital measures might our dependence upon counting cause us to overlook?
But the deeply good news is that death can be the road to resurrection. That was what happened when the Des Peres Baptist Church of St. Louis closed its doors for the last time in 2006. The faithful remnant invested a significant portion of their assets to create and endow the Des Peres Chair in Congregational Health at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/3443/53/), which it is my great honor to occupy.
Painful though it was to let go of a church they had loved and served for generations, the good people of Des Peres Baptist found joy in creating something new. Their hope was that their generosity might bear much fruit. So here I am, in a seminary determined to be relevant and fruitful if there ever was one, asking people who love God’s church what congregational health means.
I think you will be interested in what I am learning and I hope you will join the conversation. One thing is certain – congregational health is something we achieve together. In the wisdom of God, it happens in, with, for and because of community.
Look to this blog for reflections, challenges, resources and questions about congregational health. Joining me will be a number of practitioners and experts in church life. You are invited to respond on Central’s Facebook where extended conversations are possible.
Let us teach and encourage one another who may, for a moment, pause and sigh, but also bear fruit that lasts (John 15:16).
“The vocation of the “pastor-theologian” is one that appeals deeply to my personal sense of calling. I have never felt particularly gifted as a “shepherd pastor,” or a “CEO pastor,” but have always had an abiding spiritual curiosity that has led me to seek God both intellectually and in community. Working on a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree at Central gave me the valuable freedom to explore theology and biblical studies more deeply than I could have imagined. I not only learned how to conduct research in my field of New Testament studies, but I learned how to better form my own questions in search of answers. Central helped me to realize my own vision of making biblical scholarship accessible to the local parish, a vision that I hope to carry well into my future.”