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Vital Churches

By Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor

Does your church have life and vitality? Is it an essential part of your life? There are some ways you can help your church thrive.

A recent study of the more than 32,000 United Methodist churches in the United States found that strong, energetic, vital churches come in every shape and size. Whether your church is nestled against the backdrop of a picturesque country scene or is located in the heart of downtown with homeless folks nestled in the doorways, it can be thriving.

Sometimes folks get discouraged and think the grass appears to be greener around someone else’s church, rather than our own.

This research project discovered that there are essential things present in all thriving churches, regardless of where they are located, who the members are or how many people come to Sunday worship. I already knew that God can use us all, but it is nice when the statistics prove me right.

I want to share with you just a few of the highlights of their research. Their results clearly suggest ways that we can strengthen our churches.

First, they found that small groups gathering for study, fellowship and service are life-giving to a congregation. More vital churches have more small groups, more programs for children and more programs for youth. This is true for every church, from the very smallest to the largest. Simply increasing the number of small groups can increase the energy and enthusiasm within your church. Jesus reminds us, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Second, churches with effective lay leadership are 84 percent more likely to be vital and make that congregation 54 percent more likely to be growing. Effective lay leadership is the result of men and women with an authentic personal faith. In other words, they have a strong prayer life and regularly study the Bible. They attend weekly worship services, participate in mission opportunities, give a portion of their income to God and unreservedly share their faith. Deepening your relationship with God strengthens you and your church.

Third, while there are vital churches that have only a traditional or only a contemporary worship service, the highest percentage of vital churches offers opportunities for both traditional and contemporary worship. The effectiveness of pastors in specific areas makes a big difference, as well. Unsurprisingly, the highest impact on the vitality of the church is inspiring the congregation through preaching. Rated almost as high is the pastor’s ability to influence others to accomplish changes in the church. It is also significant that pastors who focus on developing and coaching lay leadership are 70 percent more likely to have highly vital churches.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, tells of traveling in South Africa in the late 1980s. He reported:

“Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and the world thought for good. School children were being killed daily by government police, and the struggle seemed to be at a standstill. I met a 14-year-old boy who was, like many there, organizing in elementary and high schools. Let’s not forget the final turn of victory in South Africa was facilitated by the bravery and wisdom of children. Anyway, I asked him if he was optimistic for the future, and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ When I asked him if he thought there would be a new, free South Africa someday, he stated to me matter-of-factly: ‘I shall see to it personally.’”

Jim Wallis concluded by stating, “There is simply no other alternative than for each person to see to it personally.”

Now that you have waded through all of these research statistics, let me ask you one question. Are you optimistic about the future of your church?

Like that young boy in South Africa, I hope you can answer, “Absolutely, and I shall see to it personally.”

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