From the Bishop
Why Vital Congregations?
Bishop Young Jin Cho
May the grace and peace from our risen Lord be with you.
This month I would like to share my thoughts on Vital Congregations.
From the first Sunday of January this year, all churches in the Virginia Conference started entering their statistical data for five areas on the “Vital Signs” website of The United Methodist Church: worship attendance, profession of faith, number of small groups, number of people engaged in mission and the amount of giving for mission. This is the second step following the four years’ goal (2012-2016) each church set in 2011.
Because of this emphasis on statistical data, some people seem to think that Vital Congregations is just a numbers game. They are also critical of this initiative because this is a top-down plan. I understand these viewpoints and acknowledge that Vital Congregations is not a perfect plan. But we need to take this initiative more seriously.
As we all know, for the past 10 years the United Methodist churches in the United States have lost about 650,000 members while the United Methodist churches in Africa and the Philippines have grown rapidly. I think the time has come to look at our reality seriously and to find a way to turn around this declining trend. We cannot keep on losing members. I do not think that this current reality is what the Lord wants for our church.
But there is a more important reason why we need this initiative. I believe that Vital Congregations should be more than a reactive plan to save our denomination. It should be more than providing numbers to the General Church. It should be a movement to restore a biblical and authentic church in today’s world. I think Vital Congregations has this possibility and, with God’s help, we can improve this initiative.
I am sure that there is no one who is satisfied with our current state. We all know that we have great need for renewal and reform of our churches. Thinking of the spirit of Protestantism – a constant renewal at the hand of God – we cannot be complacent with our reality. We, The United Methodist Church, are in desperate need of renewal and revitalization. Ministry as usual is no longer an option today.
In response to this need for renewal and revitalization of our churches, the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table have developed the Vital Congregations Initiative based upon a denomination-wide research report, “Call to Action.” Though this is not a perfect plan, this initiative can provide an opportunity and a starting point for our new future. We can tweak and improve this plan, but just criticizing without the alternative is not a good approach.
I want to say the following words to the persons who criticize and oppose Vital Congregations: First of all, I want and encourage them to pray about this. If they discern in prayer that the Vital Congregations initiative is not what God wants us to do, I want to hear from them and will respect their prayerful discernment. But I have a next question for them: What is their alternative plan to revitalize our churches other than Vital Congregations? Just objecting to Vital Congregations cannot contribute to our new future. For a more faithful and fruitful future, we need more than criticism and objection. We need an alternative plan. Just repeating the same ministry is not an option now. Our reality is much more serious. If they do not have another plan for a better future, I want them to join this initiative.
Vital Congregations will be one of the focus areas in my ministry. I think this initiative will be an opportunity for all of us. But to become a renewal movement, this initiative should begin with restoring spiritual vitality. My conviction is “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregations!” This is what we learn from the Bible and John Wesley’s Methodist movement. When people were spiritually renewed and revitalized, the church carried out her mission faithfully and fruitfully.
My priority is to restore spiritual vitality through reclaiming our rich heritage of strong emphasis on spiritual disciplines. We human beings cannot turn around our churches. We are neither Messiahs nor the owners of the church. When we humbly open ourselves to God and seek God’s power and wisdom in prayer, our churches will be revitalized and bear much fruit in our mission and ministries. Vital Congregations should begin with our praying knees. Without prayer, this initiative will become just another program and will not bear much fruit.
In our Lord,
Young Jin Cho