According to the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, the Spirit of God is already at work moving and shaping the church. Like the prophet Isaiah wrote, it’s our job to perceive that work.
“I don’t shy away from change,” said Threadgill, the associate for Vital Congregations in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, during Monday’s Coffee with the Clerk Facebook Live event. “It’s an exciting time to be in ministry … It’s time for dreamers to envision what the Spirit of God is up to … It’s hard and scary, but it’s something God is up to, so it’s going to be good.”
The Office of Vital Congregations has worked with three presbyteries — Trinity, Newark and San Jose — on a revitalization initiative that helps partner churches and presbyteries make intentional efforts at revitalization in the face of declining church membership and the busyness that many American families experience, even on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, traditional time slots for church events. Fourteen additional presbyteries have been selected for participation.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Coulter of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, S.C., which as part of Trinity Presbytery is in its second year of the initiative, told Stated Clerk of the General Assembly the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Monday that Trinity Presbytery’s general presbyter, the Rev. Dr. Danny C. Murphy, has been good at “keeping (the initiative) in front of us. He encourages us to evaluate, mark, note and celebrate when we see vitality in our midst. The more we can celebrate and re-engage, the less scary change is.”
According to the Vital Congregations Revitalization Initiative manual, vital congregations are marked by seven traits: lifelong discipleship formation; intentional, authentic evangelism; an outward incarnational focus; empowered servant leadership; Spirit-inspired worship; caring relationships; and ecclesial health.
In her travels, Threadgill — who was joined Monday by Monique Rhodes, mission specialist for the Office of Vital Congregations — said she’s seen congregations launch faith initiatives in settings including psychiatric wards and low-income housing.
“They are counting souls,” she said, “rather than people in the pews.”
The initiative, Nelson said, “has energized congregations to do some things that are totally out of the norm, to begin to experiment, fall, get back up and try something else.”
Other institutions, including schools and hospitals, are attempting similar initiatives, Nelson noted, as they’re faced with tighter budgets and increased needs among the people they serve.
“This may be new to the church, but it’s not new to the world,” Coulter said. “I think we need to trust the gifts of the Spirit in our congregations — even those gifts we haven’t turned to yet.”
A key along the road to becoming a more vital congregation, Coulter said, is to realize the road is long.
“We are realizing this isn’t a quick fix,” he said. “You’ve got to commit yourself to the long, hard work of discerning the Spirit and the responsibilities that go with that.”
“You never want to rush the Spirit in the process,” Threadgill said.
“Sometimes we are so afraid of failure we just don’t try. That’s a pathetic excuse, and I don’t think we can hide behind that,” Coulter said. Most Presbyterians have the “ready, aim” part down pat, but many are afraid to pull the trigger to make needed change. Like the entrepreneurial author Michael Masterson, Coulter thinks “ready, fire, aim” is what’s needed instead.
“We’ve got to keep taking shots and adjust as we go. I think that’s leadership,” he said. “We (pastors) know how to keep the lights on, organize a sermon and hold a session meeting. How do we re-engage the neighborhood around us? How do we wade into adaptive issues? We need to try stuff.”
Asked “How are we looking?” by Nelson, Coulter chose a literal response.
“We are looking outward, and it’s beautiful,” Coulter said. “There are so many ways to engage, re-emerge and re-invent as a church … The more we stay a connectional church, study, and pray, the more people will see how amazing this is. God doesn’t call us to be a church for us. God calls us to be a church for the world.”
“It’s a renewed energy, a renewed faith,” Rhodes said. “It’s getting out of our own way, but it’s the best place to be. We are set up for the best comeback — that’s how I’d put it.”
“In a time of some of the most significant change in the life of the denomination, we are not going to the church we used to go to,” Nelson said. “The question is whether we will take that first step of prayer, of going with resilience after being a 21st century church. God will send us the people to complete that foundation if we are willing to take risks in the name of the Lord — and if we are willing to get back up after we fall.”
“We are to be a church of the 21st century,” he said, because “Jesus wants this to happen.”