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Monday, September 29, 2014

Mission, Health and Vitality

I was at a congregational board meeting last week and when I mentioned the Mission, Health and Vitality Committee, several people burst out laughing. "That's exactly what the United Church doesn't have!" they said.


And I had to agree that they had a point. We spend a lot of time keeping the wheels turning, and fretting about the future, but we don't invest a lot of our effort into grappling with these really serious and essential words.

What is Mission? We hear about it all the time. Most churches I know have a mission statement, but that's not the same as a mission. The word mission comes from the Latin mission -- to send. A key biblical text is John 20:21, "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you." God sent Jesus to do a piece of work, and Jesus is sending us to continue that work.

Dan Hotchkiss, senior Alban Institute consultant puts it this way:

"A congregation's mission is its unique answer to the question, 'Whose lives do we intend to change in what way?'" Sounds simple. But how many congregations invest time in exploring this question in more than the most superficial way? Or extend the discussion beyond the bounds of the wants and desires of their members?

Jesus didn't deal in platitudes. He changed people. He healed them. He transformed them. Congregations will have difficulty surviving and thriving without knowing what they are being sent to do in the place where they exist.

"Health" is an Old English word meaning "wholeness." So many congregations have a sense of being fragmented. What would it look like if we were able to describe our congregations as whole, as healthy?

Health is not a static state, it's a process. Even people with significant health problems can become healthier. Their health problems can be managed and their effects mitigated by engaging in healthy practices -- exercise, nutrition, spirituality.

And the first step in a return to health is recognizing that you're not healthy. Jesus said that. "It's not those who think they're 'healthy' who need a doctor but those who are sick." Doctors can't help people who are in denial or who refuse to do what is needed.

What are the health-enhancing practices that congregations need to engage in to create greater wholeness in their relationships, their ministry, their witness to the community?

"Vitality" means aliveness. It comes from the Latin word vita, life. What does it mean for a church to be vital.

Our life is the resurrection life of Christ, and the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says we're like branches on a vine, drawing life from the Source. When churches become fretful and anxious, what gets squeezed out first are the practices that keep us connected to that Source -- prayer, discernment, careful listening.

Vitality and activity are not the same. Ironically, vitality may mean doing less so that we have time and space to draw nourishment from our Source of life.

And Jesus reminds us that the point is not to grow more branches -- it's to bear fruit. That's the reason we want vital congregations, so that we will bear more of the fruit Jesus wants us to bear.

At Presbytery last week, we came up with lists of words that would describe a missional, healthy and vital church. That's the easy part. The challenging part is to intentionally develop the practices that will make our churches missional, healthy and vital.

Part of my job is to help you do that. So if your church is ready for the conversation, contact me:

Rev. Paul Miller
Presbytery Support Minister