Everyone smiled and nodded at the story. John Allen of First Congregational Milton shared an illustration from a sermon of his predecessor, Jeff Johnson. For many years it was believed that a plane could not break through what they believed was a sound barrier. As a plane approached the speed of sound it would begin to experience sharply increased drag and violent shaking. Pilots would automatically ease back on speed and often planes would break apart or lose control. Finally in 1947, Chuck Yeager chose to push through, despite every instinct and gut reaction and established belief; he sped up and pushed his plane through the sonic boom, accelerating beyond the speed of sound to a place of calm.
It became a common metaphor as 10 churches shared their stories at a dinner in April 2017 about the renewed vitality they have been experiencing in the last several years. These churches came together at the invitation of the Church Development Council and the recommendation of Conference Staff to hear each other’s stories so that we could all learn together. Each church was unique in its size, style and community context. But all had pushed through the shaking and drag to a place of revitalization.
Each knew that vitality was not measured by more people in the pews and pledges in the plate. They described this vitality as measured by an increase in lives and communities impacted and transformed. They described how God’s Spirit is alive and well and moving in and through their churches. The remarkable increase in attendance and income for each of them was a side benefit. You can hear their stories via a video below. View a snippet of the whole story with time markers:
Here is a snippet of the whole story that is referenced to the approximate time marker for each of them on this list:
- One had chosen to focus on making their church and sanctuary a ‘safe place’ discussing and reinforcing with each other how each church member would personally be a safe place and add to the safety of the church as a sanctuary. (First Christian Congregational, Swansea at minute marker 1:03:35)
- One had chosen a clear statement to their community that they would be a place of peace, justice and extraordinary welcome to all people regardless of gender orientation or identity. (Haydenville Congregational at minute marker 10:45)
- That theme of extravagant welcome as a part of the church’s brand and identity and vision was repeated often. Another church had closed its doors for 4 months and reopened with a clear sense of purpose opening up to folks whose family members had experienced unique challenges. (First Congregational/ Disciples UCC, Danvers at minute marker 1:24:19)
- Another had expanded its intentional welcome to the use of technology to tell its story and connect people to each other. This was one of 3 ministry foci. (South Church, Andover at minute 24:53)
- One had given away its building and endowments presuming it would turn to legacy and instead discovered an increase in participation 10 fold. Their church folks would identify 8 categories of vibrancy which they recognized as a hallmark of their church’s impact. (United Congregational in Worcester at minute marker 34:05)
- One had a church evenly divided among the theological and political ideological spectrum that nevertheless found a way to grow in conversation, enthusiasm and participation and faith. (First Church of Sterling at minute marker 19:37)
- One was told over and over that these new ideas were impossible and unworkable, they did it anyway. (South Congregational Centerville at minute marker 2:45)
- One offered programs in their local community to build relationships and define their ministry, one of which has drawn nearly 10,000 people. (United Church of Bernardston at minute marker 48:38)
- One committed to building renovation and children and youth ministry and invited the youth to describe their faith and church. (First Congregational in Milton at minute marker 1:13:58)
- One with a rich history inspired each member and each new member to find or form a small group that would enable and support them to minister out of their passions and live their faith in the world. (First Congregational Stockbridge at minute marker 1:35:30)
They also told of the drag and shaking that accompanied (and continues to accompany) their faithfulness to God. Still they pushed and push through. God is good, all the time.