By Jorge Acevedo, Special Contributor
Editor’s note: The Rev. Acevedo is pastor of Grace Church, a multi-site UM church in Southwest Florida. What follows is the introduction to his new book Vital: Churches Changing Communities and the World (Abingdon Press).
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. (John 15:5)
I want to begin with a confession. I love the church! This may not sound profound upon an initial hearing, but let me give you some of my history because for me to say “I love the church” is quite radical if you know my story.
I had what you might call a nominal religious upbringing. Church was a very small part of my childhood, but I quit going to church when I was 13. The pastor yelled at me and my friend Alex for fooling around in the back of church during a service. I was so embarrassed that I left church that night and never returned to any church for five years. During those five years, my life spiraled into a world of drugs and alcohol. By the grace of God, a Campus Crusade for Christ area director led me to Christ shortly before I graduated from high school.
After attending a Campus Crusade for Christ summer conference in Colorado, I learned that Christ-followers were supposed to belong to local churches where they could worship, serve, give, and grow as a disciple. So in the summer of 1978, I began attending a local United Methodist church that was in the midst of tremendous growth. This was at the height of the charismatic renewal movement.
In that church, I began to grow as a Christian. In that church, I began to sense the stirrings of the spirit calling me into pastoral ministry. In that church, my calling was affirmed and confirmed, and from that church I was sent to Asbury College and Asbury seminary to prepare myself for a lifetime of local church ministry as a United Methodist pastor.
Upon graduation and ordination, I began ministry in the local church. And little did I know it, but an underlying bias was soon to confront me. Now please hear me, this is the truth. My bias was that I despised the church. In spite of a life-saving conversion, in spite of a wonderful local church where I was discipled and called to ministry, in spite of a wonderful theological and practical education where I was prepared for parish ministry, I hated the local church. The church was at best a necessary evil for me to endure while I went about saving souls for Jesus.
Some of the more cynical might say that my disdain for the church was legitimate, and to some degree the cynics are right. There are so few examples of vital biblical churches in America. I had little to no exposure to a church that functioned with Kingdom purposes and values. Most of my experiences were in churches that often majored in minors and wallowed in minutia.
Some of my more sociologically minded friends might say that my local church dis-ease was a function of my age and demographic crowd. Baby Boomers have been called an anti-institution age group, and I am one. My generation is hardwired to be distrustful and skeptical of government, industry, schools and religious organizations.
A second conversion
But something like a second conversion happened for me. Three encounters led me to question my bias. The first encounter happened in 1992 when I was appointed to Christ Church United Methodist, Fort Lauderdale, to serve with Dick Wills. Christ Church was in the embryonic days of her turnaround. God was up to something new in that place, and every once in a while I began to catch a glimpse of a high functioning, biblical church. I could feel a new move of the spirit that began to confront my deeply ingrained bias against the local church.
Second, I began to hear the stories of congregations that were doing church in a fresh and new way. I first heard of places within my denomination like Christ Church in Memphis, Tenn., and Frazer Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. Then my horizons were lifted to places like Willow Creek in Chicago and Saddleback in southern California. Each encounter challenged and confronted my anti-local church bias.
Finally, I began to read the Bible differently. It was as if the spirit gave me a new set of lenses with which to read. I began to see that I had been guilty of theological shortsightedness. The Bible painted a picture of the local church that is the hope of the world. The biblical picture of the church was of a pure Bride adorned for her Bridegroom, of the Body of Christ functioning symbiotically and effectively for Kingdom ends, of a like-minded people linked together by a common allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom, who worked together for the loving takeover of planet earth.
God used the church I was serving and other Kingdom-minded local churches and his Word to slowly, yet efficiently, transform my bias. In my heart and mind, the church was no longer a thing of disdain or hate, but rather an instrument of delight and honor. My first conversion was to Jesus, and my second one was to his Bride, the church.
Friends, I really love the church! She is no longer a necessary evil for me.
Instead, I now am devoted to helping her come alive in all her beauty. I have committed the rest of my life to building a highly vital biblical church that honors God and helps people. If you asked me to name the number one thing I preach and teach on, it’s the church. I stay awake at night dreaming of ways to grow a highly vital biblical local church. It’s my one driving passion!
And, yet, I am a realist. I understand that leading a church, whether you are clergy or laity, is hard. Some call leadership in a local church difficult and even dangerous work!
Grace at Grace Church
At this writing I am beginning my 17th year at Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist church in Southwest Florida. We have four campuses —three worshipping campuses and a community center. One of the church campuses worships more than 2,000, one campus worships 350 and one worships 225. Two of the campuses are “adoption” sites. They were United Methodist churches that, after years of decline, self-determined to become a campus of Grace Church.
The most recent “adoption” campus was the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Fort Myers, in a transitioned neighborhood. At the time of adoption, it was an 88-year-old congregation that had had 42 pastors in her history. A group of courageous leaders with a part-time pastor from our staff and a coach from a Christian ministry spent nearly a year building community, discerning their internal and external context, and prayerfully considering their future.
After nine months of regular meetings, this brave group of Central UMC Christ-followers made a motion at a duly called church conference for the charter of the church to be closed and for them to reopen as a campus of Grace Church. This was a bold move. The day of the vote 40 members showed up at the fellowship hall. The district superintendent handed out the ballots and told them, “There are only two options we can vote on tonight. Either vote to close Central United Methodist Church or vote to be adopted by Grace Church.”
I was sitting in the back thinking to myself, “This is a slam dunk! This will be the first unanimous vote in the history of this congregation—40-0! That’s what it will be!” The vote was taken, the ballots were collected, and when the district superintendent read them, I was floored. The vote was 23 in favor of the adoption and 17 in favor of closing. I was flabbergasted. I tried to fake a celebrative tone, and then after some pleasantries, I made my way to my car. I sat in the darkness of my Honda, leaned my head on the steering wheel, and wept. I prayed, “God, how do 17 faithful United Methodists vote to close rather than choose a bold, new future?” Although the “adoption plan” had been approved, my heart was broken.
Two years later, I have a better perspective. First, the adoption of Central United Methodist Church, now Grace Church, Fort Myers Central campus, is a miracle to behold. We sent 40 brave missionaries from Grace Church to partner with the two dozen remaining members for a community-focused restart. With our “Grace Church Playbook” in hand, Pastor Arlene Jackson went to be the campus pastor. She is an alcoholic in recovery turned United Methodist local pastor and is a courageous firebrand who, along with her amazing team, has been used of God to transform that congregation. From 30 aging white people, in just two years the congregation has become a mixture of more than 200 black, brown and white people; some are poor and some are rich. In just two years!
Second, time and experience has helped me get my head and heart around the culture of a declining congregation. All three of the church campuses of Grace Church have been turnaround congregations. The Cape Coral campus was in a five-year decline from 575 to 400. The Fort Myers Shores campus had shrunk from 350 to 70 over 15 years, and the Fort Myers Central campus was in a 25-year decline from 350 to 35. Declining congregations have a culture. Slowly, good people just lose their way in a stagnant mixture of typically inward-focused activity until there is little hope of reversal. Over time, all hope is lost, and it just seems better to close than to try again. Now I get it.
Call to Action
In 2010, I was asked to serve on the Call to Action steering team. This gathering of United Methodist leaders included bishops, general secretaries, seminary administrators, pastors, and lay leaders who love our church. Our assignment was to do the most thorough analysis that has ever been done of a denomination. We would research and study not only the general church, but also more importantly over 32,000 United Methodist congregations in America. We needed professional, objective research experts who could give the United Methodist Church reliable information about what behaviors, or “drivers” as they are called in the research, are present in highly vital United Methodist congregations.
In the Towers Watson research, approximately 15 percent of the 32,228 churches (4,961 churches) scored high in vitality based on the vitality index. This means that 15 percent of our churches have figured out some way to remain highly vital in spite of the fact that 85 percent have not. It means that we cannot lay all the blame for our congregational demise at the feet of the institution of the church. At Grace Church, I am privileged to work with a lot of addicts who are in different places in their recovery. One of the most frequent addict tricks I see in pre-recovery is “blame transference.” I’m talking with Jim, and he’s a full-blown alcoholic. He wants to blame his mother, father, siblings, wife, kids, boss, God, and yes, even the pastor for his drinking. It’s very sad.
It seems to me that many United Methodist leaders, both clergy and laity, are suffering from “blame transference.” They want to blame the bishop, district superintendent, pastor, lay leadership (or lack thereof), and yes, even God for their lack of faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry. “If the bishop would just send me to a good appointment. . . .” “If the district hadn’t planted a church in our city. . . .”
The good news is that at least 4,961 congregations have figured out ways to prevail in spite of our denominational challenges. These congregations are in all settings (urban, suburban and rural). They are of all sizes (megachurches, large, medium, small and even very small). And they are in every part of our American United Methodist connection from Maine to Hawaii and from Florida to Alaska. To me this is hopeful and promising!
Behaviors of highly vital churches
In my book, I look at five behaviors of highly vital congregations: first, pastoral leadership that is growing spiritually and is deeply connected in accountable, Christian community; second, lay leaders who are nurtured in their faith, equipped, and released into transformative ministry; third, worship that is transcendent, relevant, contextual, and excellent; fourth, the building of community through small groups; and finally, congregations engaging in local and global missions and outreach. The first four behaviors are directly related to findings of the Towers Watson research. The fifth, mission and outreach, was not included in the research as a separate category, because reliable data was not available.
That data is currently being gathered by the General Council on Finance and Administration, and there are already some preliminary results.
I have grounded each congregational behavior in sacred Scripture. In my book, I describe what I believe are transferable principles and behaviors that we are constantly working to live out at Grace Church and that I have seen being lived out in other highly vital United Methodist congregations bearing fruit today.
While we all know, and I say throughout the book, that becoming an increasingly vital church takes time, I also know that sometimes it is important to do something immediately. You need to demonstrate (to church members but also to yourself) that something new is happening and you are committed to positive change. In my book, I include suggestions with each chapter for “Quick Victories.”
Craig Robertson, executive director of spiritual leadership, has been our coach at Grace for the last five years. He has taught us the importance of clarity around principles. When church leaders read a book or attend a conference, they usually learn about the results that a vital congregation is getting. It is natural to think, “Maybe I can get these results if I mimic this church.” Mimicking another church ministry seldom works.
Supporting those results are processes that these vital congregations execute to get their results. Again, it is easy to think that if I can just replicate the processes in my church, we will get the same result. Seldom does this happen. But beneath the processes are the principles and behaviors that drive the congregation. For vital United Methodist congregations, these principles are grounded in Scripture, rooted in the early Methodist movement, and then translated into each congregation’s unique context with its own challenges and opportunities.
There is one other thing I see vital congregations doing: They slowly get better at what they do. Businessman W. Edwards Deming first introduced “continuous improvement,” a business model that transformed Japan’s economy and then became a business model around the world. A lifestyle application of this principle is that crash diets don’t typically work, while slow, intentional lifestyle changes do. Cooperating with God’s design for proper eating and constant exercise, health can be attained.
The same thing is true in our walk with Jesus. You don’t just step over the line of faith, say “yes” to Jesus and, bang, everything is fixed. The Christian life is a pilgrimage. It’s a journey. And that is also true of vital congregations. They welcome feedback. They mine for problems and tirelessly fix them, getting better at the art of ministry, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. After every major initiative at Grace, we gather the team leaders and reflect on how the event went, then we make adjustments that can help us do it better, and finally we list precisely what we are going to do better next time. It’s continuous improvement.
Friend, I love the church, and I want to invite you to love the church with me. My prayer is that you will find your love for the Bride of Christ bringing you to tears and moving you to join Jesus in releasing the Body of Christ into this world of his that so desperately waits to see her beauty!
Reprinted by permission of Abingdon Press.