One of the points of conversation in the broader faith community is my definition of a vital (what I call “transformational”) congregation. Most definitions of a vital congregation follow what I would call a conceptual-behavioral approach. A conceptual-behavioral approach establishes a set of externally developed metrics that focus on customs, beliefs, and values against which the congregation is evaluated. For example, some groups would define a vital congregation as one which meets in a worshiping space that is free of symbols, holds an evangelical set of beliefs, and values individual
conversion. The middle judicatory of a mainline denomination may have a very different set of customs, beliefs, and values, usually skewed to benefit the denomination itself.
The weakness of the conceptual-behavioral approach is that it fails to take into account the actual experience of the members in faith communities. Neither concepts nor behaviors create meaning. Most of us have been in situations where someone argues for ideas that leave us wondering what they have to do with real life. In addition, we have participated in ritualized behaviors after which we have felt that we were simply going through motions. In other words, the conceptual-behavioral approach fails to establish meaning, and faith communities are generators of meaning if they are anything.
The alternative approach that we have taken with organizational intelligence is what folks are now calling somatic-knowing, that is, knowledge that is attained through the experience of the body. A somatic-knowing approach probes the emotional states that arise from the actual experiences of members. Specifically, organizational intelligence defines a vital congregation by looking at two dimensions of somatic knowing: satisfaction (the experience of fullness and wholeness) and energy (the experience of excitement and purpose). Fullness, wholeness, excitement, and purpose generate meaning in a way that custom, beliefs, and values alone cannot.
This definition of vitality solves a problem that denominations and religious systems have struggled with for years, namely, how to reach consensus on the particular customs, beliefs, and values that constitute vitality. In the conceptual-behavioral approach, any group of thirty different leaders will develop thirty different lists that are then to be applied as external standards to the faith communities under their shepherding.
The fallacy of this approach can be seen in reflecting upon the behavior of a healthy individual. A healthy individual has many different ways of expressing that health. He could be a runner, a biker, a swimmer. She can serve as a doctor, a lawyer, a barista, or a construction worker. He could have many casual friends, or a few close ones. She could earn a million dollars a year and give a hundred thousand to charity. He could live on social security and volunteer in a local food pantry. Health has so many options.
Similarly, a vital congregation has many different ways of expressing that health. Some are going to be noisy and boisterous in worship. Some are going to be quiet and reflective. Some are going to focus a large percentage of their resources on international mission. Some are going to excel at equipping individuals to understand their work as vocation. Some are going to be led by a pastoral team. Some are going to have a strong, central leader. Some are going to meet in a warehouse. Some are going to meet in a school. Some are going to meet in exquisitely appointed sanctuaries.
Healthy churches have options. In fact, one of the characteristics of healthy churches is that they capitalize on opportunities in ways that are creative and unique.
Unhealthy churches, like unhealthy individuals have restricted options. I broke my ankle skydiving, and the injury limited many of my options that required physical activity. In fact, if you look at persons who have broken their ankles, they all look pretty much the same. They have a cast on their leg. They keep their leg elevated. They use crutches. They don’t move very fast.
The same is true with churches. While healthy churches look very different from one another, struggling churches look very much the same. Conflicted. Settled. Inwardly focused. Fixated on scarcity. Here’s the thing: if you look at these churches through a customs, beliefs, and values lens, they may be holding up fairly well. However, if you look at them through the lens of somatic knowing – fullness, wholeness, excitement, and purpose – their corporate lives are starved for meaning.
Do I worry that congregations with high levels of somatic knowing – fullness, wholeness, excitement, and purpose – have simply abandoned all interest in customs, beliefs, and values? Not really. That’s like asking if I worry that a healthy person might not be eating right, exercising, or getting enough sleep. Vital congregations, like vital individuals, tend to be paying attention to the habits of mind and behavior that contributed to their health in the first place.
Founder of Holy Cow! Consulting