The Rev. Tony Oltmann led the workshop “The 7 Marks and You – Vital Congregations Initiative” at the Presbyterian Center during the Moderators’ Conference. Photo by Rick Jones.

The Rev. Tony Oltmann led the workshop “The 7 Marks and You – Vital Congregations Initiative” at the Presbyterian Center during the Moderators’ Conference. Photo by Rick Jones.

“We have a power-packed hour for you,” the Rev. Carlton Johnson, coordinator for the Office of Vital Congregations, told the people attending a workshop called “The 7 Marks and You” during the Moderators’ Conference, which concluded Saturday. The conference attracted 145 presbytery and synod moderators and vice moderators from around the country, attending both in person at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, and online.

The Rev. Tony Oltmann, associate for the Office of Vital Congregations, led Saturday’s workshop, with technical help from mission specialist Marla Edwards.

“We can’t judge the soil where the seeds are planted. We can’t judge the church by the way it looks, and we can’t judge people by the way they look,” Oltmann said. “Instead of saying, ‘just be vital,’ the Presbyterian Church came up with seven marks of congregational vitality based on congregational surveys. … We don’t call them attributes or ingredients,” Oltmann said. “We call them marks” in the same way that the disciple Thomas told his friends, “I will net believe until I see the marks” on the risen Lord.

As one who loves to cook, Oltmann said the Vital Congregations Initiative has an ingredients list, “but we really don’t have a recipe card to give you. It’s not about us telling anybody what to do. We don’t have that authority, and it’s not how we work as people. … You know your churches better than we ever will, and we want to rely on that.” In fact, the process is more like the reality cooking show “Chopped,” Oltmann said, a show that requires contestants to get creative with the ingredients at hand.

“We give you the seven marks in a basket and walk beside you for two years as you study and decide what is needed,” Oltmann said. “Where is God calling us? What do we need more and less of? You are the experts. We say, ‘Here are the ingredients we think we should use. … We have the resources and tools to help you do the work of the church.”

Oltmann then identified the seven marks, along with a few words of explanation for each:

  • Lifelong Discipleship Formation — It is “intentionally sharing the good news, not just acts of kindness,” Oltmann said. “It is relational, not programmatic or systematic.” In fact, “Jesus asked us to follow,” Johnson said. “Far too often, we spend a lot of time in worship and think that’s following. It’s not how big your cross is; it’s how big is the work you’re doing.
  • Intentional Authentic Evangelism — Oltmann contrasted this with complacent Christian piety. Authentic evangelism involves “cultivating wisdom and actively following Christ,” not in an “extra-curricular or merely head knowledge” way. It’s “discipleship awakened and engaged in issues facing today’s culture,” including injustice, inequality, divisive segregation, oppression, suffering and the abuse of Creation.
  • Outward Incarnational Focus — Oltmann contrasted that with “inward institutional survival and closed communities of assimilation or exclusion.” It’s a mark that features awareness and focus on a worshiping community’s neighbors and neighborhood. “It goes beyond a relationship with those who are like us,” Oltmann said.
  • Empower Servant Leadership — This mark contrasts with the notion that “It’s the pastor’s job.” Churches employing this mark “identify, nurture and support the use of the spiritual gifts of all people to serve,” Oltmann said. “All voices and people are necessary, and it’s noticeable when people are missing.”
  • Spirit-Inspired Worship — Contrast this mark with “stale ritual divorced from meaning or consumer entertainment worship,” said Oltmann, a pastor in Minnesota. Worship at its best “challenges, teaches, transforms, encounters, convicts and sends people out different,” he said. “It’s not about coming to church and holding a pep rally.”
  • Caring Relationships — This mark contrasts with “any other social club.” Here, “instead of a closed, judgmental community, people have freedom to find stories, encounter the Savior and ask for help.”
  • Ecclesial health — This contrasts with unhealthy dysfunction and toxic environments and includes dealing with obsolete and irrelevant buildings. Church budgets reflect the congregation’s values, vision and ministries. Everyone is aware of how decisions are made, with “continual assessment” made “of the why and how we are church together,” Oltmann said.

“These marks aren’t independent of each other,” Johnson said, naming some of the values derived from several of the marks working in tandem: “If you’re in a community where most people are over 50, care for the community in front of you. We say more with our budgets than we say with anything else. If you want to increase giving, share what you’re doing.”

The Vital Congregations Initiative can lead to at least three outcomes, the leaders said:

  • Missional clustering, which might involve, say, churches coming together to hire a shared employee.
  • Reforming and reimagining such questions as, do we need a building? Can we worship in a school or restaurant?
  • Death and resurrection. If a church closes, what happens to members, money and mission?

The Vital Congregations Initiative “works hand in hand” with the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation, Oltmann said.

“You can find the manual online and get to work yourself,” he said, “but we feel it’s more of a partnership. We want to walk alongside you over the two years.”