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Learning how to become a ‘Vibrant Church’comment (0)

March 26, 2009

By Brittany N. Howerton

Approximately 250 Alabama Baptist ministry leaders gathered March 10 at Green Valley Baptist Church, Hoover, for the Vibrant Church Conference, an event sponsored by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions’ (SBOM) office of discipleship and family ministries.

“I feel like when we have leaders that are connected with God and are becoming spiritually [healthier] and helping members connect with their calling and purpose as they grow to become the disciples God wants them to become … then I think we begin to see a picture of a healthy church,” said Sonya Tucker, an associate in the office of discipleship and family ministries and conference coordinator.

The conference, which served as the SBOM’s 2009 Baptist doctrine study, was led by Alabama-native Thom S. Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources and co-author of “Vibrant Church: Becoming a Healthy Church in the 21st Century.”

Rainer said in order to move toward health, the church must first assess its current state.

The American church is stagnant in membership, has a high number of inactive members, is declining in evangelistic effectiveness and is allowing an increasing level of biblical illiteracy, he said.

According to recent surveys by LifeWay Research, seven out of 10 Southern Baptist lay people have never shared their faith one time. And in a survey of pastors, 53 percent admitted they have not shared their faith with someone one-on-one within the last six months.

“The United States has become the fourth-largest pagan country in the world,” Rainer said. “If we are not evangelizing in our own back yard, we are missing the Great Commission of Acts 1:8.”

John Jaye, minister of education and outreach at Northside Baptist Church, Jasper, said he was shocked to hear the statistic about pastors.

“But it certainly makes you assess your own life,” Jaye said.

But Rainer said it is “with unwavering commitment and conviction that we do have reason for optimism” because of the biblical image of the body of Christ, which provides unity, mutuality and, above all, love.

He noted the seven characteristics of a New Testament church are that it has regenerate members, practices church discipline, is Word-based, is congregational in polity, is active in missions and evangelism, maintains sound theology and observes the ordinances.

“We cannot even begin to talk about a vibrant church or church health until we begin to understand it is based upon the absolute truth of the Word of God,” Rainer said.

Detailing issues of church discipline, church leadership guidelines and qualifications and church purpose, he said on a practical level, creating a healthy church means creating a solid entry point for new members and setting high expectations.

Create an entry point at which new members can learn about ministries, facilities, staff, cultural issues, polity and mission, Rainer said. And provide expectations for how they are to be involved in and devoted to the church, he added. These could range from Sunday worship and small-group activities to ministry positions and missions trips.

“You’re going to get in your church, for the most part, what you expect,” Rainer told ministry leaders. “And the lower the bar, the more issues you’ll have. You can raise the bar to a point of where you’ve crossed from expectation to legalism. … But at the same time, we’ve had a generation of low-expectation churches, and as a result, we are reaping very little because there has not been much sown.”

Beth Cape, children and families minister at First Baptist Church, Cullman, agreed it is important to set high expectations.

“We don’t put expectations on members these days,” she said. “It is important to teach a class for new members to set the bar higher. People are looking for things to put their lives into, and we have the opportunity to provide that.”

Rainer said because the Church is the witness Christ left on earth until His return, there are few things that could be more important than promoting its health so the conference’s primary goal was to re-emphasize for ministry leaders what God says about the Church.

“As Christ loved me, so I love the Church. And the last time I looked in the Church, it was messy and sometimes mad and sometimes unpredictable, but so am I and Christ decided to die on the cross for me,” Rainer said. “I should love the Church sacrificially when they’re wonderful and lovable and when they aren’t. Perhaps as we, as leaders, put that love first … we’ll begin to see a true spiritual awakening across our land.”

The conference was a LEADERconnect event. LEADERconnect is the SBOM’s two-year emphasis established in 2007 and designed to help Alabama Baptist leaders connect with the person of God, the purpose of God and the people of God.

For more information, visit www.alsbom.org/leaderconnect.

To purchase Rainer’s book, visit www.thealabamabaptist.org and click on the LifeWay Christian Stores button.

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