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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Conclusion, 7 Marks of Vital Congregations

7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, the conclusion of a 9-week sermon series on the PCUSA “7 Marks of a Vital Congregation”, preached Sunday August 13, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


This Summer, we’ve been studying 7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, how alive we are as a body, a congregation, and how much life we add to the community around us. The seven are:

1. Lifelong Spiritual Growth… do we learn and study God.

2. Intentional Authentic Loving… do we engage all people as already God’s.

3. Active, Outward Focus… do we actively insert love and welcome into the brokenness of the world.

4. Shared Gifts and Power… do we help everyone participate, and let no one hold too much power too long.

5. Spirit-Inspired Worship… do we show up to worship, praise God, and trust God’s versions of truth and life

6. Genuine Caring Relationships… are we honest and vulnerable with one another, and

7. Healthy Accountability… do we holding this church accountable to do the will of God, and build God’s kingdom.

That’s a tall order. 7 complicated, nuanced ways of thinking and being church. And we are different folks, with different ages and backgrounds and beliefs. How do we be one church despite these differences?

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?

20 As it is, there are many members yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect, 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the weaker member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.

26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the one body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work powerful deeds? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)


In politics, we spend a lot of time talking about Presidents. If we expand our vision, we might also talk about the Majority or Minority leaders of the House and Senate. After all, if you want to do something in our country, politically, you need the House, Senate, and President to agree.

I find the more revealing positions, in understanding American politics, to be the Majority and Minority “Whips” in the House and the Senate. Their job is to “whip” their members… meaning coerce, cajole, convince, or chastise members of their party until everyone votes the same. If either party loses even a few members, it is seen as a weakness. “Why couldn’t you keep your members in line with the rest of the body?” This is why new politicians, elected for their new ideas and new solutions, are often whipped into compliance with all the same old ways of doing things. They are elected by the people for their uniqueness, then whipped into conformity by the system.

Paul understood halls of power, having himself served as one of the leading interpreters and negotiators of the Law. At some point, he left behing his blind party loyalty. Jesus got to him, and awakened his faith in ways that helped him see things differently. I’m sure he was resented, maybe even hated by his old crew. I imagine he was challenged and mistrusted by his former opponents. So Paul understood very well the pulls and pressures of trying to hold a body together while honoring the diversity of all its members.

I think Paul’s instructions on how to be church comes out of that experience. Just before today’s reading, Paul speaks of the variety of Spiritual gifts in everyone and how they come from one God. Then, Paul uses this image of a body. The church is one body, and has, uses, needs all its diverse members. When we are a vital congregation, we are both at the same time many, many gifts, many individuals, many members, AND we are one, one body, one God, one purpose.

Paul sees three ways we fail at this, at being many and one, at being different, unique members AND being one body, one congregation.

The first way we fail is like a foot saying, ‘I am not a hand. I do not belong’, or an ear saying, ‘I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’. No member should consider itself not a part of the body just because it isn’t like some other part. A foot can’t say, “Well the hand has opposable thumbs, so I’m not needed around here.” An ear shouldn’t say, “The eyes can see, and seeing is so important, and I can’t do that, so I guess I’ll quit.”

Paul knows, some people give up on church, remove themselves from the body because they aren’t like the others, maybe they aren’t able to do what others do, or maybe they don’t think or feel or believe the same as others, so they remove themselves from the body.

If you feel different here, don’t let that stop you. Each and every person is a member of the one body. Maybe some are long-time members, some are new members or non-members, or just visitors. Fine. Some like this and others that, some think we should do this and others wish we would do that. Great! That diversity is precious. God wants those differences. No one will here always get our individual way. So what? We are one. Don’t cut yourself from this body.

The second way we fail is like an eye saying to the hand, “We don’t really need you,” or the head saying to the feet, “You’re not really one of us.” No member of Christ’s one body will ever push out any other member just because they are different, were born different, think or feel or believe differently.

Churches tend to run off people that are different. Wealthy churches run off poorer people. Older churches run off young people and children. Whiter churches run off people of color. Traditional liturgical churches run off curious spiritual seekers and questioners and doubters. Traditional churches run off people who want lively music, and contemporary churches run off people who are bored to tears by slow hymns on the organ. Sometimes they mean to, and others times they don’t, but churches can give off a vibe of, “This is who we are, so maybe this isn’t the church for you.”

As one body, the church, we must not intentionally or accidentally pressure others to conform. Paul says if the whole body were to conform, to be just an eye, we would lose hearing. God arranges the different members into one body so the body will be able to see, smell, hear, run, write, speak. Without all these diverse functions, there isn’t a body! To be a healthy body, a vital congregation, the church, it requires we seek these diversities and welcome them, not insist they conform or leave, so don’t pressure anyone to conform, or cut anyone off from this body.

Paul’s third way we fail at being many and one is when members who are supposedly mature in faith fail to defer honor to those weaker or newer in faith.

We tend to think of mature folk as the ones who have done church a long time, who get stuff done, the lone rangers who do the work, the ones who manage the resources and make big decisions. Healthy churches need doers and deciders. The problem arises when these “mature” folk do not exercise the whole body, do not include the whole body in the discernment, debate, and decision. The purpose of the body is not to work together for one purpose, not get the job done without the other members, or to make tough decisions despite the other members.

Those who are truly mature look for ways to lift up others into the tasks of ministry and include others in ministry decisions. You’re new here, great! We need to hear your questions, and your suggestions! You’ve been wondering something. Wonderful! We need to know what you feel and think! He truly mature will help the quiet speak, the wall flowers bloom, the isolated be surrounded, the worriers brave. The mature honor the “weaker” members by listening and recruiting and empowering them into ministry.

When I came to the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown, over three years ago, Pastor Sara had retired after 18 years. Yall had just finished a big Mission study, a deep self-analysis as a congregation. In it, you celebrate some of our past and present strengths and confess some of our weaknesses. You even imagined some of the ways we would need to change and grow in the future. You put a lot of that into the documents and conversations that called me to be with you as one of your pastors.

COVID really put a kink in our coming together. And I don’t know about you all, but lately, finally, I’m beginning to get a sense beyond COVID of how we can be more vital, be many and one, embrace and expand our diversity and at the same time rally toward one another and toward one greater purpose together.

I don’t know exactly what those directions or decisions will be, but I believe these 7 Marks of a Vital Congregation will help us. I believe… everyone will be needed here. Don’t cut yourself off. Don’t cut anyone else off. Everyone has something to share here. Let’s invite the God given gifts in each other, bring them forward, and put them to good.

(You have an insert inviting you to nominate leaders. Who in this church seems to you gifted and ready to help lead us toward this vital vision?)

To God, be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen?



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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