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Part Two of Two
We are the beloved community.  Yesterday, we discussed how we came to be a community.  Jesus’ love for each of us transforms our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  Because Jesus loves us, we can now love others.  And the way that Jesus teaches us to exercise this love first and foremost is to live in community with his followers.
Jesus himself weaves us into the beloved community: our congregation, our diocese, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  
We could never engineer a society like this.  And yet, even though our community is a gift, it is also an achievement.  At each and every level of the beloved community, that community needs our commitment, our energy, and our resources to be what Jesus himself prays that we will be together.
Jacopo Bassano, “The Last Supper”

We know that Jesus is praying for us, because John records that prayer.  Here is an excerpt:
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:21b-23)
In other words, Jesus makes us into the beloved community, and now he is teaching us how to act like it.  How we love one another teaches the world how God loves all of us through his Son Jesus Christ.  We are the instruments through which Jesus is transforming the world’s stony hearts into hearts of flesh.  But we can only do that by truly being who Jesus is teaching us to be.
This morning we’re going to spend time focusing on how to be the beloved community as a congregation.  In a variety of different contexts I have used the term congregational vitality to describe the goal we share for our local Jesus-following communities.  
Congregational vitality is what happens when we act like the beloved community.  To help us move toward our common goal in the coming year, we are going to address three questions together.
I will respond to the first two questions:
What are the marks of a vital congregation?
What measures are we taking as a Diocese to promote, sustain, and increase congregational vitality?
Then, it’s time for the audience participation portion of our program. When I have completed responding to my questions, I ask you to take up this question at your tables:
What difference is your congregation making in your life and in the lives of the people in your community?

Marks of Vitality

As we think about the marks of congregational vitality, let’s remember that Jesus’ love for us is the ultimate source of that vitality.  In other words, congregational vitality is a witness to the risen Christ.
Church growth and congregational development programs offer us often valuable techniques to increase average Sunday attendance and to strengthen annual budgets.  Unfortunately, these models have sometimes led us to focus on size and numbers instead of the less tangible but more fundamental marks that Jesus referred to as worshipping in spirit and truth.  (John 4:23)  
Using only the techniques of church growth and congregational development as your guide, you could be left with the impression that bigger means more faithful and that the only measure of vitality is numerical growth.
Focusing on vitality helps us to avoid this error.  We can recognize that small can be precisely what Jesus has called a community to be in order to offer the witness needed in a specific place.  
If we are not obsessed with the idea of growth, we can boldly minister in demographically shifting contexts that church growth experts might avoid.  If you think about it, would Jesus really want us to avoid spreading the Gospel in areas suffering economic downturn and challenging cultural shifts?
Don’t get me wrong.  Growing the church is essential.  In some contexts, that growth will be both spiritual and numerical.  But our focus on congregational vitality will help us to focus first on our witness to the risen Jesus Christ and allow the matters of attendance and budget size to follow appropriately.

Jesus Mafa, “Pentecost”

So, how do we discern the vitality of a congregation if not by average Sunday attendance and budget size? I will briefly outline some important marks of vitality below.  Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive and it is just a list.  Whole books have been written about each of these marks of vitality.
Sincere worship is the most important mark of all.  Whether loud and exuberant or quiet and contemplative in their worshipping style, a vital congregation really means it when they gather.  They come yearning to experience the very presence of the risen Christ, to hear a word uttered just for them, and to receive strength, encouragement, and direction for the work Jesus gives them to do.  There can and indeed must be dry seasons in the worship life of individuals.  Desert time is part of spiritual growth.  But congregations with sincere worship sustain even our desert wanderers.
Vital congregations engage in authentic practices.  Hospitality is chief among those practices.  When strangers come into our midst, we make them feel welcome and greet them as sent by Christ himself.  Strangers sense that we acknowledge them as someone just like us: the beloved of Christ.  And they sense that we have something they’re looking for: we know in our gut that we are the beloved.  The list of practices is long but familiar: shared study, intentional stewardship, forgiveness, and gratitude are just a few.
Tender pastoral care marks our congregations as vital.  We know each other and we allow ourselves to be known.  The community of the beloved is a safe place to share your woundedness and dreams, your heartbreaks and your struggles.  We are all equal in our need for mercy and grace, and we have all received it from Jesus in equally infinite measure.  And so we can care for each other and be cared for by others without fear of rejection.  Clergy guide us in pastoral care, but they are not the pastoral care providers.  We all are.
Finally, vital congregations provide compassionate outreach to their surrounding community.  We feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, shelter the homeless, provide school supplies to children, host concerts and health screenings and recovery programs.  If a vital congregation were to suddenly disappear, the surrounding community would experience a terrible loss.
Jesus assures us that being the beloved community provides a powerful witness to his resurrection and acts as a conduit to the world for his transforming love.  Remember Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John’s Gospel.  Jesus gathers us into community “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21)
Structuring for Vitality
This brings us to our second question.  What measures are we taking as a Diocese to promote, sustain, and increase congregational vitality?  For the sake of brevity,  I’ll give just an outline of some of our main strategies.
We will make resources available not only through our website, but in the person of a new Canon for Congregational Vitality.  The Rev. Bill Bryant has accepted my call to serve in this role when he completes his cure as Interim Rector of St. John’s, Minden.  Father Bill will be available to visit with congregations and to assist them in implementing and strengthening the marks of vitality.
  1. Many congregations have expressed a desire to focus on children’s, youth, and young adult’s ministry.  I am searching for a new Canon for Children, Youth, and Young Adult Ministry who will help congregations focus their resources and energies.
The Holy Order of Deacons play an important role in the Body of Christ.  Deacons gather and organize the laity for service in the world.  To enhance the vigor and visibility of our outreach ministries, I am focusing on raising up more deacons for our Diocese.   I have appointed The Rev. Deacon Bette Kauffman to serve as Archdeacon.  In this non-stipendiary role, Archdeacon Bette will convene the community of deacons and serve as their principal resource for diaconal ministry.  
Our standing Commissions will play an important role as well.  I am charging the chairs to meet regularly with their commission, and I will work with the commissions in a process of retasking.  In particular, I am asking the following commissions to rethink their purpose in light of congregational vitality and to be prepared to offer resources to congregations appropriate to their ministry area:  Mission, Christian Formation, Stewardship, Liturgy and Music, Evangelism, and Youth and Young Adults.
  1. Finally, we are in the early stages of rethinking the structure of the Diocesan School to support our intentional focus on congregational vitality.  Not only are we exploring the sorts of offerings needed, but we are also considering how to make the School more accessible to all of our convocations.
We are the beloved community.  Jesus himself has woven us together.  But our Lord has given us a gift with some assembly required.  He gives us the opportunity to do the community weaving along with him.  We are not on our own, but are also more than passive recipients.  We are active participants.  
Jesus has planted and molded our congregations in the world as witnesses to his transforming love.  Our witness is not just a sign that points to a distant love.  It is a conduit through which that love flows.  Jesus changes the world through Jesus-following communities.  
And this brings us to our final question.  This question is for you to share with those at your table:
What difference is your congregation making in your life and in the lives of the people in your community?
After we have had some time to share, I will gather us in a closing prayer.  And please, feel free to let the Spirit lead your discussion to where it should go.  Other questions may bubble up at your table.
This address was delivered at the 33rd Annual Convention of the Diocese of Western Louisiana in Alexandria, Louisiana.
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