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Wrestling with Vitality and the Necessity of Narrative

I keep remembering the old story of a guy who went fishing.  That night he came home with no fish to show for his efforts.  His friends questioned him about his efforts.  He replied, “I didn’t catch any fish but I did influence quite a few!” People aren’t fish and yet Jesus did say, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).  We need to accomplish more than a vague immeasurable “influence.” I raise all this up because we continue to wrestle with how we measure congregational vitality.  We know, we surely all know, that things like worship attendance, missional activity/engagement with the poor, professions of faith and baptisms, spiritual formation and small group accountability, financial generosity (and this is only a partial list) are all crucial to building healthy vital congregations.  Gil Rendle comments that “one sure key for changing a system to get different results depends upon clarity of intended outcomes.” (His emphasis) The basic elements of congregational vitality correspond to vows of Methodism and the five Fruitful Practices of vital congregations.

The Five Practices

Vital Sign Metrics

Membership Vows

Passionate Worship

Average Weekly Worship   Attendance

Presence

Radical Hospitality

Professions of Faith/   Reaffirmations of Faith

Witness

Intentional Faith Development

Involvement in Small Discipling Groups

Prayers

Risk-Taking Mission & Service

Involvement in Service beyond the Congregation

Service

Extravagant Generosity

Total Giving

Gifts

  Our wrestling with vitality comes at the focal point of trying to measure discipleship.  The numbers (metrics) never quite match up.  They are imperfect proximate measurements of far more subtle concepts.  By way of example, ask a question of true discipleship.  Just how do we measure a transformed life? A partial answer to this dilemma is the inclusion of the category of narrative.  Narrative invites us beyond simple, incomplete metrics while at the same time taking seriously the need for metrics as something that points us in the right direction.  On March 19, 2012 I posted a blog entitled The Importance of Narrative.  It is worth emphasis that vitality and narrative go together.  Allow me to quote by way of emphasis. Both I and the Cabinet have repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing the narrative.  Narrative is the story, the background information, which helps understand what is taking place.  Often (usually!) the narrative changes before the metrics.  What does this look like?  A pastor and congregation(s) start discovering and sharing with each other stories of significant mission impact in their life together (i.e. “remember when we were helping that homeless family find a meal” or “it was moving to hear Jimmy talk about the difference that following Christ has made in his life” etc.).  One of the keys to understanding narrative is that it is a specific story.  Narrative is not a vague assertion.  It tells a tale of God in action in the life and ministry of a congregation and individuals.  In our use of the vitality metrics, we (Bishop and Cabinet) have left a large place for the narrative story to be shared.  It is critical piece of learning for us as a Cabinet, for pastors, and for lay members of a congregation!  Narrative begs to be shared! Wrestling with vitality is tough vital work and narrative tells a critical part of the story.  Together we are advancing the Kingdom of God!