Vitality looks different in different contexts, and none is more stark than comparing Mars Hill and First United Methodist Church in Seattle.
What looked vital…
Back in 2012, a United Methodist Bishop from Texas visited a church in Seattle, Washington. Not a United Methodist church, but rather Mars Hill, which at the time was a thriving non-denominational church in multiple locations.
The good Bishop reported on his visit of the downtown Seattle location and what struck him was how Mars Hill described the previous occupants of that location:
In 1908, that church dedicated a marvelous huge sanctuary at the heart of the city. At one time they were one of the largest churches on the West Coast. But, gradually, as the Mars Hill pastor put it, the church in the story got busy with other things and drifted away from offering Christ. According to the speaker, amid many good things, they lost a focus on Christ and slowly the congregation dwindled to a few and then relocated.
The previous occupants? Seattle First United Methodist Church, which had moved off that block to a new building a few years before.
The Bishop kept returning to the description of that congregation that “dwindled” and left:
For me, there was a word of warning and admonition that day. Don’t lose focus. Don’t drift away from the primary mission of sharing Christ. Whatever else we do, this needs to stay at the center of what we are about.
Clearly, the Mars Hill Church was a vital congregation. And First UMC? While the Bishop said it seemed to be “engaged in a wonderful ministry,” by the end of the post, it was clearly not vital or effective in the way Mars Hill was.
At least in 2012.
…Ended up being the opposite.
Fast forward two short years to 2014, and Mars Hill Seattle was no more.
Two years ago, Mars Hill Church was the third-fastest growing large church in the country. Its original location in Seattle had spawned 14 other branches in five states, and 13,000 people attended weekly services at which founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons were projected on large screens. Thousands more connected with the church online, and Driscoll and his wife Grace wrote a guidebook titled Real Marriage that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 2012.
And Seattle First United Methodist Church? Still going strong. Still engaged in vital ministry, serving over 5,000 free breakfasts last year, hosting the Christ and Cascadia conference in 2015, and doing well in its new location.
How did the Bishop get it so wrong?
Vitality is more than skin-deep
We all bring our lenses when we visit a church or analyze a church and see what we want to see. But objectively speaking, vitality (a state of healthy growth and impact) looks different depending on your ministry context.
However, that doesn’t stop denominations like The United Methodist Church from making cross-context claims. They defined vitality in 2014 by four marks:
- small groups and programs;
- worship services that mix traditional and contemporary styles with an emphasis on relevant sermons;
- pastors who work hard on mentorship and cultivation of the laity;
- an emphasis on effective lay leadership.
Even using an updated 2016 comparative model to other churches in their area, Mars Hill would clearly be considered “Highly Vital” by The UMC.
Too bad there’s no vitality column for “honesty.”
Vitality is more than numbers
While Mars Hill/Seattle FUMC comparison is an extreme example, I think it speaks to the conflict between quantitative and qualitative measurements when it comes to church vitality:
- Quantitative measurements are numbers: numbers of people in the pews, dollars in the plates, people out in mission, and even “1 contemporary, 1 traditional” quantities to fill out checklists.
- Qualitative measurements are descriptive and narrative: how good is the worship, how friendly are the people, how prophetic is the preaching, and what quality of life has changed in the community because of the church.
The vital measurements by a denominational entity that spans multiple contexts are wholly quantitative: that’s the only way a corporate entity thinks is possible to evaluate. By naming what is being counted, then that dictates from the top what numbers will be focused on by the local churches. This leads to discontent as local churches are suspicious of each other, and leads to a culture of competition for the raw numbers.
And yet by focusing on quantitative aspects of ministry, we lose sight of the intangible impact and spiritual growth of individuals. And that is really only known by actually visiting, hearing testimonies and narratives, and seeing people on the ground. As denominations like The UMC cut their middle-management staff, they lose the “on the ground” people who can give the qualitative feedback to the system that runs on the numbers.
It’s a tough time to be discerning vitality, but that doesn’t stop people from applying it to churches they are biased about.
Do One Thing Well
I think my advice to churches who are struggling with this vitality question is to “do one thing well.”
My local church has a membership covenant. We don’t sign it or memorize it, so it’s more a list of expectations that the church has of its members, and what the members can expect of the church. But in it is this line:
Service: Discern where God is leading you to serve both inside and outside the congregation. Do one thing well.
I think any local church that can figure out how to do one thing well is on their way toward vitality. If they can figure out how to do that one thing well, then they can ask “what are we doing that distracts from or negatively impacts this One Thing?” Maybe the worship service needs to have blended elements. Maybe the people don’t know each other and need a systematic way of small groups. Maybe there’s not a mentoring culture where old-timers guide newcomers.
Pretty soon, by starting with the qualitative, you’ll see quantitative effects in precisely the areas that the powers-that-be count. But if not, at least you have the one thing that is doing well.
And for some churches, that’s the least we can expect.
My hope is that we learn that vitality looks different in different contexts, and while numbers are necessary, truly helpful evaluation comes from direct experience and contact, and giving those people who are charged with evaluation both the voice of advocacy and the ability to know their churches better.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading and your shares on social media.