Today, I saw that the United Methodist Church launched its “Vital Congregations” portal [read the press release here]. The Vital Congregations project, authorized by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table in response to the Call to Action findings [which really found that we needed to “reorder the life of the church” because there was no accountability] is a means/program/new initiative that resources congregations who need “help, encouragement and support” in moving towards the indicators of a healthy and vital congregation [I think we could all use a little bit of this].

The research indicated that vital congregations have the following [but a total of 16 ‘drivers’ [programs, structures, leadership, etc.] of vitality-see page 4 of the report]:

  • Inviting and inspiring worship
  • Engaged disciples in mission and outreach
  • Gifted, equipped and empowered lay leadership
  • Effective, equipped and inspired clergy leadership
  • Small groups and strong children’s programs and youth ministry

This Vital Congregations website [I’ll refer to it as VC from here on] is to be the place where congregations can access resources in the areas of worship, evangelism, small groups, mission and stewardship to achieve these goals. Sound good so far? I think so. Keep reading.

[What about accountability?]

If lack of accountability is what got us here in the first place, what’s different this time? A report of every congregation’s goals are to be compiled by the districts and conferences. The conferences will then set goals [who makes sure this gets done?] based on the congregational goals and the conference goals will be collected [by whom? and assessed by?] and reported at the 2012 General Conference. That’s less than a year away. Hear that? We have 1 year to see if our congregations can do the following:

  • review their history and assess their current health
  • set goals to reach the vision of becoming a more vital/healthy congregation [based on the measurable indicators of vitality: worship attendance, professions of faith, number of small groups, persons in mission and missional giving]

The VC folks have already prepared a Frequently Asked Questions document with a simple grid [see image to the left] to record the numbers through 2012 and beyond [a minimum of ten years is what the report recommended], which will be submitted to their district superintendents and then to the bishops. What churches are really being asked to do is create a dashboard where they can track these activities. But it’s going to be a little more complex than tally marks on a sheet of paper or word document or even a spreadsheet.

I’ve been thinking about dashboards and metrics for the past month in my new role as Director of Outreach at First Church in Seattle–something to give our church council each month that gives a snapshot of worship attendance compared to the prior year and prior month, participation in small groups compared to attendance in worship, new members received and levels of engagement in the church life. With this dashboard, we hope to keep a pulse on the activity in the church, see where things are slowing down or picking up, and be able to make modifications in what we’re doing before too much time has passed. But it’s time consuming. I’m pretty savvy with communications and data crunching and I can foresee that I’ll need my team of lay folks to work with me on this to ensure we’re gathering useful information.

[Just go to this website…]

My question, though is this: with congregations ranging in size from 15 people to 1,500 people, and with collection data varying as it will, do we really think giving people a website with resources [i.e. lots of articles and videos to watch] will do the trick? And is what the site is resourcing the best we have?

Click, for example, on “Our Story.” What would you hope to find? Some inspiring stories about ways that the people of the United Methodist Church have learned what it means to love God and neighbor? How following Wesley’s model for small group discipleship has transformed congregations? Nope. You find a gallup through United Methodist History. Literally. In claymation. And in song. WTF. Yes, What the F*ck. Really? You want to offer this as a tool to teach our UM heritage and resource congregations? That’s how we should tell our [his]story?

And the promo video. I thought that I was watching a video from my junior high health class. Are we facing forward or backward? To stay with this hospital imagery, have we flatlined? After watching the video, I wasn’t jazzed and excited about the future of the UMC. This is not the UMC that I know and experience. I felt like I was in the recovery room listening to the doctor tell me that I came so close to dying, and that I needed a lifestyle change to stay healthy. What’s empowering about a narrator telling me that my choice to pull together a team to set goals is inspiring? It was like the guy on my Wii telling me that I was doing a good job in my workout and to keep trying.

I’m not saying it has to be about the sexy PR, because it doesn’t. But who’s going to get behind an initiative where the strongest image one can take away is a patient monitor. And don’t even get me started talking about the kinds of messaging we are communicating with this motif. What do I think of when I visit a hospital? Sickness and death. Unless this was a scare tactic on the part of the UMC’s communications team, it’s safe to call this one a #FAIL.

[So what I’m saying is]

I don’t have answers to what the UMC or any mainline denomination experiencing decline needs to do to thrive. But I think somewhere on this journey we’ve lost our way. We’ve tried to adopt the latest fad in the ways we do church, have let a variety of social issues divide the Church, have forgotten what it means to be community and to welcome the stranger. We’ve turned our gaze inward and have cried about churches shutting down left and right, while the families down the street have needed our attention and our members have deep, dry wells that they cannot replenish. What’s worse is that we have held so tightly to the ways we used to do things, that our energetic and life-giving leadership has left to serve in other places where their gifts are recognized and where they are mentored and supported and allowed to try new things.

The Call to Action report gave me hope. It cast a vision for a church that I know and love. The report to the Council of Bishops created a list of dreams that the church might one day show more grace and freedom and have fewer rules, more positive expressions of ecumenism and less cynicism. That vision of the church excites me!

If we can get our congregations excited about that kind of church, we might have a chance.