Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

A Glimpse of Church, Using 2020 Vision

Author: 
Sharon E. Watkins ’84 M.Div.

Some 15 years ago, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) made a bold commitment: Start 1,000 new congregations and spark renewal at 1,000 established churches, all by the year 2020. We called this initiative 2020 Vision, which was begun under the leadership of then General Minister and President the Rev. Dr. Richard Hamm.

By now, with more than 850 new church starts or affiliations underway, we are on track to make the first goal. We may be on track with the second, although renewal is harder to measure. In any case, what has become clear from our experience is that flourishing congregations, whether newly formed or undergoing transformation, have some characteristics in common.

Mainline churches in general are “well positioned to meet the challenges of this new era – but it would require us giving attention towards our own transformation,” says Rick Morse, vice president for Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, the ministry that oversees the 2020 Vision initiative.1

Four Kinds of Attention

What kind of attention is he talking about? We’ve identified four major areas: attention to a clear sense of congregational purpose or call, spiritual attention, community attention, and a willingness to be changed. Flourishing congregations have a specific sense of where God is calling them, and they keep their focus there.

Shawnee (KS) Community Christian Church, through a Hope Partnership assessment called New Beginnings, realized they were spending 60 percent of their budget on mortgage and building – and not making ends meet at that. Only three percent of giving went to mission outreach.

Shawnee resolved to do something drastic but decisive and far-reaching. According to their pastor, the Rev. Johnny Lewis, “Through our New Beginnings process we agreed, reluctantly, and unanimously, that the best answer for us was to sell our property, relocate to a rented space that was less expensive, invest more of ourselves in real mission, and start over as a new church, doing ministry in new ways that might continue our witness in the neighborhood.”2

That was four years ago. He now reports, “In 2015 we are tithing as a church for the first time in years, we will provide 500 boxes of food for area families, and we recently collected $8,000 in one month for the Global Mission initiative for clean water in the Congo – ironically this is the same monthly mortgage payment we could never meet. Yesterday we celebrated baby dedications, baptisms, and new members of the growing new congregation that is emerging from the faithful legacy and sacrifice of Shawnee Park.”

Thriving congregations pay spiritual attention. Liberation Christian Church in St. Louis, MO, always knew their calling was to witness for social justice. In late summer 2014, as protests mounted in nearby Ferguson, founding pastor Rev. Dr. Dietra Wise Baker could see that God was calling her congregation into the streets. Her people just kept showing up there.

“The same spirit that was calling us to worship was calling us into the streets, so that ‘we could become,’” she says. “The movement helped us remember why God called our church into being in the first place. Come out into the streets. I promise you’ll meet Jesus there.”3

The spiritual focus of a transforming congregation is less on what they themselves are doing and more on what God is doing through them.

In her new book, Thrive, the Rev. Dr. Ruth Fletcher, Regional Minister of the Christian Church in Montana, underscores the need to cultivate spiritual habits that connect directly to Jesus’ teachings. “Those spiritual habits are learned behaviors that connect those churches with the way of life practiced by Jesus, with the sacred Spirit, and with the needs and gifts of their neighbors,” she writes.4

Such congregations also focus on community attention. Rick Morse of Hope Partnership puts it this way: “They look at their community as their ministry, not the group gathered before them. While church participants care deeply about each other, it is not the ultimate focus of the mission of the church. Instead, participants gain joy from working side by side in mission as they practice discipleship.”

In 2009, Chestnut Ridge Christian Church in Marietta, GA, saw itself as surviving but not thriving. Wanting to change its path, church members entered a period of spiritual discernment about their future. They decided their goal had to be more than “best church IN the community.”

“Rather, God was calling them to be the best church FOR the community,” according to a Hope Partnership report.

Months later, the church started a modest community garden to fight neighborhood hunger and also reduced its governance in order to give more flexibility to ministry teams. Within three years, the church had changed dramatically. Hope Partnership reports: “They expanded their community garden to provide hundreds of pounds of produce to local food pantries and partnered with local master gardeners, developed a summer lunch program, embraced a shift in the preaching style and added simple use of technology in worship, launched a new website, partnered with a local hunger initiative, reorganized their Disciples men’s, women’s and youth groups, placed greater focus on children’s ministry, collaborated with another Disciples church on a shared worship experience, got involved in a local housing initiative, and more.”5

Pastor Byron Wells says now their church has “more visitors and more engaged members exhibiting vibrancy, energy, passion – people who love being together, but who are taking it to a higher plane and turning the focus outward instead of inward.” It becomes obvious that transformation depends on another key characteristic: a willingness to change.

“First and foremost a congregation in transformation understands that it must transition from doing ministry in a 20th-century context to doing mission and ministry according to a 21st-century context,” says Reginald W. Calhoun Sr., Disciples Executive for Evangelism and Congregational Transformation.6

The Dance of Transformation

Jean Vandergrift, a Disciples scholar with many years’ experience as a parish minister, sees the church dynamics of change as a kind of dance. A church’s transformation into a witness-bearing place, she says, “occurs as the congregation practices or ‘dances’ the reign of God, a dance that corporately and continually turns toward the lead of God …”7

Despite the uncertainties facing church life today, our 2020 Vision adventure defies the familiar narrative of “mainline decline.” Decline is not the only story. It’s also about metamorphosis and what church will look like at the other end of these times. In the transformation dance, paying attention to call, Spirit, community, and change, we learn what we take with us, what we leave behind, and what we invent new for a new time.


The Rev. Sharon E. Watkins ’84 M.Div. serves as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. She is the author of Whole: A Call for Unity in Our Fragmented World (Chalice Press, 2014).

Notes

1 Email exchange, July 15, 2015.

2 Email exchange, April 13, 2014.

3 Meditation presented at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at Columbus, OH, July 20, 2015.

4 Ruth Fletcher, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations (Energion Publications, 2015), p. vi.

5 http://www.hopepmt.org/2015/06/18/patience-andintention- key-to-transformation/

6 Email exchange, Aug. 25, 2015.

7 Jean Vandergrift, The Dance of a Changing Church: A Practical Theology of Congregational Transformation, doctoral dissertation, Boston University School of Theology, 2015.

Issue Title: 
New Voyages: Church Today and Tomorrow
Issue Year: 
2015