John Wenrich serves as the director of Congregational Vitality for the Evangelical Covenant Church and instructor in North Park Theological Seminary‘s certificate in congregational vitality. His article, “The Holy Spirit and Congregational Vitality,” leads our upcoming Quarterly issue. Here John shares his own journey into congregational vitality, how international and seminary teaching have shaped his ministry in North America, and his vision for the Evangelical Covenant Church. (Read the full issue here.)
What led you to the ministry of congregational vitality? What primary factors have contributed to your passion and gifting for guiding congregations toward vitality?
I came into the Covenant as a church planter in 1994. The concepts I learned in church planting prepared me for leading revitalization when I became pastor of First Covenant Church in Portland – a church established in 1887. I experienced firsthand the wind of the Spirit blowing through the valley of dry bones while leading the revitalization of First Covenant. Through the very rewarding experience of pastoring this congregation, God showed me that dying churches can change their trajectory as the Holy Spirit moves and guides. This is why I am passionate about church plants and established churches learning from each other.
As a young boy, I was very close with my grandfather. That significant relationship taught me how to treasure the elderly, listen to their stories and learn from their accumulated wisdom. I remember visiting the oldest living member, Harold Anderson, the very first week “on the job” at First Covenant. I asked him to bless me. I will never forget that experience. Something supernatural happened. God has given me a love for the local church and a passion to see the Gospel burn brightly and warmly in our hearts. I like envisioning, building, and casting a vision of hope.
In your experience, what are the strongest indicators that a congregation should begin the vitality process? Do the indicators look different depending on cultural context or socio-economic circumstances?
There are obvious indicators like flat or declining attendance, decreased giving and a lack of healthy missional leaders. But there are more subtle indicators: apathy, stagnation, a loss of hope, or living in the past. These indicators tend to cross cultures and class.
Yet there is a perception that the pathway is a last resort. Like postponing a doctor’s appointment, some congregations wait until the pain of not changing outweighs the pain of changing. The best time to work on vitality is now. This is true even for healthy missional churches. Our vision is for every church to walk the congregational vitality pathway regardless of their current state of health; we hope vitality becomes the new normal.
Statistics put out by Start and Strengthen Churches suggest that the majority of pastors entering the vitality pathway are white men. How do you interpret this? Is the vitality process culturally-specific? Is there a correlation between white churches and churches in need of vitality?
It is no secret that the majority of established congregations in the Covenant are white and are led by white male pastors. Statistics refers to this as a distribution sample. This says more about established Covenant churches as a whole than it does about vitality. Most of the multi-ethnic growth in the Covenant is coming through the portal of church planting, not established churches.
At the same time, the pathway is being contextualized in a number of countries around the world. Translations of vitality resources exist in Spanish, French, Danish, Mandarin, and Czech to name a few. Unique cultures invite vitality teachers to contextualize resources for their particular ministry settings. For example, teaching vitality in a shame-based culture differs from teaching it in a Scandinavian context. How a culture views the distribution of power is another factor that significantly impacts how vitality is led. I am greatly encouraged to see more and more ethnically diverse pastors and congregations walk the pathway. We are grateful for this and want to see this number increase. We need more multi-ethnic and female voices on the DCV team.
Your passion for congregational vitality has taken you all over the world, and you’ve conducted seminars in many different cultural contexts. How have these experiences shaped your understanding of what vitality is and/or impacted how you teach in North American churches?
In my experience the biblical principles regarding the characteristics of a robust church (what we call the ten healthy missional markers) transcend culture. So too do relational covenants and the four types of churches (healthy missional, stable, critical moment and at-risk). I am continually amazed at how these concepts are embraced on a global scale.
At the same time, vitality does not follow a uniform pattern. Just as no two churches are exactly alike, so too each unique culture embraces and contextualizes the vitality pathway differently. Every culture has something wonderful to teach about vitality. Each culture also presents their own unique challenges as well. I listen and bring those insights back to the church in North America. I never come back the same.
Has your teaching in North Park’s new certificate program impacted how you work with congregations? What have you learned from teaching these classes and engaging with students interested in this process?
Teaching courses in the certificate in congregational vitality continues to be very life giving for me. I am learning so much from students and guest speakers and am grateful for the deeper collaboration between the ECC and NPTS. The subject of congregational vitality is vast, and we never stop learning. Our method is act, learn, act. I have learned that seminary students really enjoy this kind of classroom environment, especially as they begin to think about transitioning to a local church.
We are using the certificate as a “farm team” leadership development system. We are training people to serve as more effectual pastors, lay leaders, vitality facilitators and future DCV’s. We are even using the certificate as an assessment center to identify future vitality pastors. I am encouraged by the diversity and gender mix in the classes. All of this gives me great hope for the future of the Covenant and our mission in the world.
Where you do see the Evangelical Covenant Church in ten years? How does the vitality initiative interface with the denomination’s focus on church planting?
I see the Covenant younger, larger, and more diverse in gender and ethnicity. We are already leaning into this new future, especially through church planting. We want new churches to live longer and stronger. We want established churches to experience revival. We want all churches to reproduce. If I could add an eleventh healthy missional marker, it would be church planting. Every church can participate in this multiplication process to one degree or another. All churches can be fruitful in this respect.
I envision a common language of vitality that is taught at the very beginning of church planter training. One day every church plant is going to become an established church. The fourth through sixth year of a church plant are especially critical. We want to invite every church plant to begin the vitality pathway during this important season of development. We are also including church planting principles in our vitality training to established churches.
The convergence of church planting and congregational vitality is part of this future, and this convergence is beginning to happen. The new certificates in church planting and congregational vitality offered by NPTS in collaboration with the ECC send a clear message about developing healthy missional leaders for the future. Paul planted and Apollos watered, but God is the one who made it grow. This is the biblical paradigm that shows how directors of church planting (DCPs) and directors of congregational vitality (DCVs) are actually on the same team but with two different tasks. We are in it together. This is one of my highest priorities in 2016.