Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Congregational Health and Vitality

Several of us in our congregation (and I would presume, our district) received the following survey (shown in its entirety below in maroon) from our District office. It asks for the "3-5 Best Indicators of Congregational Health and Vitality."

If this is to be a true dialogue within our district and church body, I think this could be a very helpful exercise. I do believe there are indicators of a parish's vitality (from the Latin "vita" meaning "life"). The life (vitality) of a congregation flows from the living Lord Jesus and the gifts of life He distributes freely by the Gospel. I fear that many of our well-intentioned, but misguided, congregations have lost sight of this fact as they pursue every manner of secular solution to what may not even be a problem in the first place.

We have become so enamored of the nostrum "bigger is better" that members of our church hierarchy sometimes sound like marketing consultants instead of churchmen. In reality, the Church is not called to "increase market share" or "improve the bottom line," but rather to be faithful, to preach the Word in and out of season [2 Tim 4:2], to make disciples by having pastors teach and baptize [Matt 28:19-20], and by the faithful receiving those gifts in faith [Rom 3:25]. The Spirit blows where He wills [John 3:8], and our vocation is to cast the seeds upon all kinds of earth, not merely demographically and financially attractive ground in the manner of secular marketing experts [Matt 13:1-9]. While not as sexy as Ablaze!(tm), the old-fashioned paradigm is rooted in God's Word and has preserved and grown the Church through periods of intense persecution, through doctrinal controversies and widespread heresies, through reformation, through modernism and postmodernism, and will serve God's people unto eternity.

God calls us to a radically counter-cultural and counter-intuitive method for growing the Church. I think many in our synod have lost sight of this.

Anyway, here is my answer...

1) A weekly celebration of the Mass in accordance with Scripture, the Lutheran confessions, and the historical practice of the Church.

Many of our churches continue in the pietistic delusion that Holy Communion is unimportant (and must be "made important" by infrequent celebration). Some argue that the Sacrament of the Altar exists in competition with the Word, and that the weekly celebration of the Mass is "too catholic." Thus, our people have been deprived of the fullness of the wonderful blessings of the Holy Supper for generations. Satan is certainly pleased every time the Holy Eucharist is shunned in the weekly services of our churches. Such a wedge between our Lord and His Bride is unhealthy.

Our own confessions' definition of Lutheranism includes, and assumes, the weekly celebration of the Mass, and denounces bitterly the false rumor that we have abandoned the Mass [AC 24:1, Ap 24:1].

Along these lines, the distribution of the Holy Sacrament to those outside of our fellowship is an indication of a diseased congregation [AC 24:6]. In our desire to be "friendly," we have become doctrinally sloppy and irreverent in the way in which we treat the Body and Blood of our Lord, as though we were handing out mere symbolic elements rather than the true Body and Blood of Christ [SC 6:2].

Along these lines is the issue of how the elements themselves are treated. Is the Blood distributed respectfully in a chalice, or doled out out Tijuana-slopshoot style in plastic jiggers only to be tossed into the garbage? Is the pastor working toward a restoration of proper eucharistic piety and practice with regard to Holy Communion (if this, in fact, needed in the congregation) through patient, pastoral catechesis, or is he content to coast with the unhealthy status quo?

2) The exclusive use of traditional liturgy and hymnody.

Our Lord Himself worshiped according to the liturgy of Word and Sacrament in His earthly ministry [Luke 4:16-22; Matt 26:26-28], and continues to do so today (as we confess in the liturgy) among "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" [Rev 7:9-12]. The early Christians received this tradition by establishing liturgical worship focused on Word and Sacrament, a lively dialogue between bishop and people. Our Lutheran tradition includes a strong presence of rigorous, doctrinally sound, evangelical hymnody that is respectful, introspective, dignified, rooted in the cross, and Christocentric - as opposed to the general American Protestant "praise song" that is banal, redundant, doctrinally indifferent, and quite often rooted in a Gnostic and/or Arminian understanding of Christianity.

Our confessions presume the use of traditional worship [AC 15:1; 24:2] condemn innovation [AC:Articles in Dispute:4], and emphasize the notions of reverence, piety, received tradition, decorum, and dignity [AC:Articles Corrected:6; SD 10:7,9]. Healthy congregations will observe the traditions and cermonies of the Church that have been retained: the sign of the cross, full eucharistic vestments, reverence at the altar in manner and gesture, respectfulness by parishioners in dress, gesture, and conduct in the sanctuary, etc. [AC15:1; 24:2]. Pastors should work toward elevating the dignity of services, while unhealthy congregations seek to replace the biblical liturgy with words of men, to replace dignity and sanctity with familiarity and casuality, to abolish ancient chorale and chant in favor of ever-changing pop music, and will turn to non-Lutheran sources for entertaining musical styles over and against sound doctrine and proclamation of the Gospel.

Unhealthy congregations will make use of instrumentation not condusive to leading congregational singing (e.g. drums and guitars), will turn from congregational liturgical music in favor of "performances" (such as having musical ensembles "perform" from the front), and will often shun hymn books in favor of TV-like big screens.

Other unhealthy worship practices include: dancing girls, skits, and pastors who stroll around during the sermon. All of these innovations are antithetical to the Lutheran confessions and are indicative of a congregation desperate for numbers - which indicates congregational malaise.

This is why the LCMS (at least theoretically) requires member congregations to use doctrinally pure hymnbooks, service books, and agendas. In our synod and district, we have a most unhealthy diversity of doctrine and practice.

3) Private pastoral care centered in confession and absolution.

Too many of our pastors adopt the unhealthy persona of cheerleader or CEO instead of shepherd [Jer 3:15; 1 Pet 5:2] and steward of the mysteries [1 Cor 4:1]. Pastors of healthy congregations will visit the sick and shut ins, bringing not only well-wishes, but also bearing the Word of God and the holy sacraments - including the Sacrament of Holy Absolution [John 20:22-23; SC 5]. Healthy congregations will have pastors available to hear confessions, may even have regular posted times, and parishioners will avail themselves of this tradition that is rigorously defended in the Lutheran confessions [AC 11].

Unhealthy congregations will shun private confession, and unhealthy pastors will only absolve parishioners in the general confession on Sundays - if that is even done at all. Unhealthy congregations will have laymen such as elders, lay deacons, lay "ministers", Stephen "ministers", or deaconesses performing the function of the ordained pastorate in giving private pastoral care to parishioners.

Healthy congregations have a respect for the office of the holy ministry as confessed in the Book of Concord [AC 5; 14]. Unhealthy congregations lord over their pastor, or the pastor lords over the congregation. Unhealthy congregations treat the pastor as a hireling [John 10:12-13], and may pay him an unworthy salary [1 Tim 5:18].

4) Evangelical preaching rooted in biblical texts.

Having men ordained into the preaching office [AC 5; 14] who proclaim the Gospel is a hallmark of a healthy congregation. Lay preachers are a sign of a sick congregation. Healthy preaching is rooted in the lectionary text (as opposed to "free-form" preaching that allows the preacher to skirt the discipline of being a servant of the texts, but rather their master). Healthy preaching is not cute, trite, or designed to entertain. Healthy preaching absolves sins [John 20:21; Luke 10:16] and proclaims Christ crucified [1 Cor 1:23]. A traditional pulpit makes a statement about the sacramental nature of the sermon [Ap 7/8:28]. A wandering, joke-cracking pastor with a wireless mike is a sad symptom of ecclesiastical decay.

Childrens' sermons (often done by women and typically executed sitting in the chancel with back to the altar) are indicative of desperation, of a confession that says the traditional homiletics of the past two millennia do not work. Such innovations that are contrary to the Lutheran confessions indicate poor congregational health and vitality.

5) A rejection of secular models and techniques for "success."

It seems simple, but most things that are true are simple. The only reason to leave the traditional churchly model of church and ministry is a perceived sense of failure. If one doubts the efficacy of traditional Word and Sacrament ministry, one is going to look elsewhere for "success" - as well as looking elsewhere for benchmarks of "success." It is a problem of faith, of belief, that the Lord works in the way He promises.

I believe a healthy congregation simply supports the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments - not getting caught up in numbers, programs, gimmicks, marketing schemes, mission statements, and slick campaigns that typify 21st century corporate America, but are actually radical innovations when it comes to the one holy catholic and apostolic church of antiquity and eternity.

By contrast, an unhealthy congregation looks away from the Holy Spirit and the means through which God works to forgive sinners [AC 5]. A sick congregation is a bean-counting congregation. Pastors and other church leaders who can quote chapter and verse of constitutions, bylaws, mission statements, and synodical programs are not as healthy as those pastors and laymen who dedicate their mental resources to praying the Psalms, committing Scripture and catechism to memory, studying the Lutheran confessions and the history of the Church catholic.

In short, an unhealthy congregation looks to itself and to the gimmicks of the secular world to carry out its ministry, whereas a healthy congregation fixes its eyes on Jesus [Heb 12:2] and simply delivers the Word of God, that is Jesus, to sinners - whether they are receptive or not, regardless of numbers, regardless of money, regardless of the praise and approval of men [Acts 5:29].

Greetings to you in the name of Jesus, our Savior and Lord!

Much emphasis today in the LCMS is being focused on the revitalization of current congregations. It is a goal that a minimum of 1/3 of congregations be revitalized in the next decade. Efforts to assist with revitalization of congregations is a top priority for Parish Services. While some congregations live in denial about their health and vitality, what do you believe are the 3-5 best indicators of church health/vitality and what needs to be addressed?

I would appreciate your response and thank you for your time. Your responses can be brief but try to be as specific as possible. Your responses will help us in Parish Services as we seek to be responsive to partnering with congregations toward the goal of health and revitalization.

Your Response:

Name 3-5 Best Indicators of Congregational Health and Vitality:

What Needs to be addressed to help congregations grow in health and vitality?

Blessings and thanks for your response!

In His Service,

Gene Menzel

Executive Assistant for Parish Services
Southern District - LCMS


Mike Green said...

The clowns. You forgot to mention the clowns in #2. ;)

romanreb said...

I am stunned by the fact that the congregation is not drinking poison koolade in order to gain release from this interminable and senseless twaddle.
It will be a long time before I can look at another pizza.
Kyrie Eleison.

Whey Lay said...

Great answers, specific, clear and biblical. Unfortunately I fear it may not be the answer that was being sought. Many times business organizations will solicit such internal surveys as a "trawling action", for justification of policy (new or old) or leadership's chosen direction.

The statement -

While some congregations live in denial about their health and vitality, what do you believe are the 3-5 best indicators of church health/vitality and what needs to be addressed?

exposes the presupposed view. Churches who don't recognize their non-membership growth (health) are in denial.

Most likely the posted results will show 40 - 80% of respondents stating that the best indicators are 1) Increasing Adult Membership, 2)Stable or Black Financials and 3)A Recognized Involvement of Lay Programs (small group, lay led worship, etc).

I hope I'm wrong.

Father Hollywood said...

I believe Romanreb's comments were intended for the previous post: "An Amazing Sermon." I copied them and put them there. Thanks for posting, Romanreb! Next time, don't hold back, tell us what you REALLY think! ;-)

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Whey:

I went back and forth about whether to actually submit an answer to our district office.

I came to the conclusion that I would not. I believe they would interpret my honest answer as an insult (our district overwhelmingly supports Ablaze!(tm) and alternative lifestyles of worship.

I have no intention of mixing things up with my district office. I want them to leave me alone, so I leave them alone. But I do believe this is a great point of dialogue for our churches - assuming that true dialogue is solicited and not merely a rubber-stamp of the current direction of synod and district.

Once again, I think the internet allows us to have this kind of dialogue while bypassing the bureaucracy. Technology may at some point render the circuit-district-synod bureaucracy obsolete. It is very comforting to find like-minded pastors and congregations beyond our bureaucratic "borders."

Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful post!

Father Hollywood said...


Indeed, how could I have forgotten the clowns? Turn to page 1,243 of your hymnal supplement as we sing the hymn of the day, "Send In the Clowns."

Of course, we could use that as a processional hymn to open a meeting of the district or synod bureaucracy!

Did I type that out loud?