A boy named James wanted to be the most famous – and the wealthiest – maker and seller of cheese in the world, so he started a small business with a little wagon and a pony named Paddy. After making his cheese, he would load his wagon, and he and Paddy would drive into the streets of Chicago.
When James was still not making any money after months of long hours and hard labor, he knew something was wrong. “I’m afraid we have things turned around,” he thought, “and our priorities are not where they ought to be.” So he made a commitment: For the rest of his life he would serve God first and then work as God directed.
Years later the young boy, now grown, would stand as a Sunday school superintendent at Chicago’s North Shore Baptist Church and say to his congregation, “I would rather be a layman in the North Shore Baptist Church than to head the greatest corporation in America. My first job is serving Jesus.”
As a church, we have cheese to sell, good cheese, but we’re not making any money. We have a treasure to offer that will transform the world, and for all our efforts, we’re not reaping much gain. Although The United Methodist Church is growing vigorously in most of the world, in the United States we continue to languish in mediocrity or to wither and die. In the last three years, only fifteen percent of our congregations have been identified as “highly vital.” The rest – eighty-five percent – are at best only moderately alive.
Like young James, we know something is wrong. Our long hours and hard labor are not working, and we need to turn things around. Once upon a time, to determine whether a congregation was doing well, we counted just two things: bottoms in the pews and dollars in the plate. Now we know those measurements are not enough. People and money don’t tell us whether we’re fulfilling our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
What makes a vital congregation? The Rev. Amy Valdez Barker has an answer. Valdez Barker is the executive secretary of the Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination’s mission, ministry, and resources. “Congregations that are vital,” she said simply, “are helping people live out their discipleship.” Kim Shockley, team leader of the recently completed Toward Vitality Research Project, examined congregations that had undergone recent change and were reaping the benefits of that change. “The vital congregations we interviewed,” she said, wanted “to measure the impact they were making in the community – how many people we were feeding, clothing, etc.”
“Growth in attendance and participation is important,” she said. “But we have to look at things beyond Sunday morning worship – small groups, mission opportunities, places where we can intentionally build relationships and help people to find a connection back to a relationship with God.”
It used to be that when we wanted to know how well we were doing at “selling cheese” – at being the church – we counted people and dollars. We’ve grown up a bit. We still look at worship attendance, but most of the other indicators have changed. Now we want to know the number of professions of faith, how many people are coming to the faith with no previous relationship with the church. We want to know how many small groups are active in the congregation and how many people participate in them. We want to know how many people are engaged in local, national, and international outreach beyond the walls of the congregation. And we want to know how many dollars we give to other organizations for support of benevolent and charitable ministries.
The purpose of any Christian congregation is not to serve itself and then, as it is able, to serve the world. Our purpose is to go into the world in the name of Christ; to serve the Christ who is hidden there; and to do it at the expense of our comfort and security. And it’s to do it as a way of building life-giving relationships with people we never thought we’d have anything in common with.
It’s building relationships and helping people reconnect with God that Bishop Elaine Stanovsky looks for. Bishop Stanovsky says she knows whether a congregation is vital soon after walking through its door. “When I visit a church,” the bishop said, “it doesn’t take long to determine whether this is a place that is in the habit of inviting and receiving people into the community. [You can tell] whether the systems are transparent to guests and newcomers or whether you have to be a lifelong member to know where to find a cup of coffee.”
How do you think we score with that test of vitality? Are we looking outside ourselves, or do we look primarily inside, to our own comfort and security? On Rally Day two families with young children visited us for the first time – a young couple and a single mother. They attended worship and stayed for lunch and festivities. Both families reported later they would not return because in both cases only one person spoke with them, and that person was a member of the staff. Everyone else ignored them.
As natural as it is that we enjoy and celebrate one another’s company, it’s just as important that we learn to look outside ourselves, beyond our own interests, beyond our own comfort. We know how to serve ourselves first, and we can see how well that’s working for us. It’s working about as well for us as it did for young James. We need to learn again how to serve God first. We need to rearrange our priorities and learn to do again the things that have always made the church and our denomination strong and vital. It’s hard work, but we can do it.
And that young boy named James, who reordered his life to put Jesus first: You may not know him, but know his work. Every time you take a take a bite of Philadelphia Cream cheese, sip a cup of Maxwell House, mix a pitcher of Kool-Aid, slice up a DiGiorno Pizza, cook a pot of Macaroni & Cheese, spread some Grey Poupon, stir up some Cream of Wheat, slurp down some Jell-O, eat the middle of an Oreo first, or serve some Stove Top stuffing, you remember the promise little James Kraft made to serve God first and then to work as God directed. That’s the power of faith, the gift of God within us.