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Transformation directors says inroads made but more to do

Transformation directors says inroads made but more to do

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Transformation directors says inroads made but more to do

Feb. 28, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0451}

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

Now a few years into the Natural Church Development (NCD) process and a few months short of retirement, the Rev. Kendall Taylor points to some successes and acknowledges the delta between the way things are and the way he and his leadership team envisions they could be.

LAKELAND — The Rev. Kendall Taylor reports on the work of the Office of Congregational Transformation at the "One Body One Spirit" 2005 Florida Annual Conference Event. Photo by Geoff Anderson, Photo #06-319.

Taylor took over the newly formed Office of Congregational Transformation (OCT) in the fall of 2002 with the goal of turning failing or plateauing churches into revitalized forces for the Kingdom of God.

Churches formally enter into a transformation covenant, in which their membership and leaders vow to embrace certain principles and steps to improve the health of the fellowship. A key feature of this process has been NCD, developed by a German Lutheran named Christian Schwarz and based on eight key characteristics of healthy churches. Clergy and laity trained as coaches facilitate the overall transformation process, dovetailing with various spiritual formation resources Taylor's office provides.

Clergy and laity are taken deeper into the characteristics — empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship services, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism and loving relationships — through participation in the conference's Healthy Church Academy courses, coordinated by the Rev. Larry Rankin, also a member of the conference staff.

During last year's annual conference session Taylor and Russ Graves, chairman of the OCT team, reported Florida is the first conference to have established such an intentional ministry. "We did not get to this place, this condition, overnight, and we can't fix it overnight," Graves told delegates. "We have a long, hard road ahead, hard work, important work. And we, as laity, must come together, must partner with our pastors, to be who God is calling God's church to be."

During a recent interview, Taylor emphasized the church is "to be a missionary outpost, not a consumer organization."

"I cannot emphasize enough that for a congregation which does not know where it wants to go, it doesn't matter what tools it employs, it will not help," he said. "The vision has to be discerned. And it is not the pastor's vision. It is God's vision."

A Christian since 1949, Taylor said he can't remember, while growing up or even as a young adult, a pastor "building in me a sense of urgency about the need to share my faith"

"I lived in Christendom in which 'everyone's a Christian,' " he said. "We live in a world now in which less than half the people go to church and a huge percentage have no Christian memory. We have a vastly different task than I imagined we had in the 1950s and 1960s."

Taylor said his own "conversion" to the realities facing the contemporary church occurred during the 1980s. From 1973 to 1979 he served a new church start in Coral Springs that grew about 500 percent in six years. He said he left there thinking he "knew the answers on how to grow a church." His next three appointments were churches that had started to plateau and decline.

"I tried to do the same things that succeeded at Coral Springs, and none of them worked," he said, adding he began to ask, "What's wrong with this picture?," at the second of the three churches.

"I've come to two conclusions," he said. "First, the church has no compelling vision for what God is calling it to do. The second thing is that churches are substantially disconnected from their communities. They don't know who lives there. They don't know what they need and are not motivated to relate to them. The attitude is, 'If they want to come, they will.' "

The collision of these two stark realities, Taylor asserts, is integral to nearly every church that is declining. The challenge of Congregational Transformation is "to get their attention and to have them fall in love with the unchurched people in their community so they will structure their congregational life to connect with them," he said. "The ultimate goal is to love them enough and gain their trust enough so you can share Christ with them, and they will see becoming a Christian as a viable decision they can make."

Taylor said NCD can only be successfully employed as a transformation tool once a church realizes it's in the disciple-making business and surrounded by unchurched people.

Looking at the past several years, Taylor says his office has done a great deal to get people's attention. The NCD characteristics have caused a lot of anxiety and encountered some resistance, but have now permeated the conference culture. "Hardly anybody will be ignorant of these terms," Taylor says. "They are ways of helping churches look at themselves and decide, 'How healthy are we?' "

The past several years have also taught Taylor and his team not every church is ready for NCD. Those barely maintaining their level of ministry, declining or considered dying should first be part of a process of refocusing or emergency intervention. The team has found NCD is often not successful in those circumstances and is working to identify and develop resources and processes churches can use to get ready.

"We have a conviction that we are to help churches get ready for transformation when they are not ready," Taylor said. "It would be cruel and absolutely inconsistent with the Gospel we share to just tell them. 'You are not ready. Go get ready and come back to us.' We are about helping churches transform, not just implementing a particular process like NCD."

Taylor says that help comes in the form of the Healthy Church Academy, which trains clergy and lay leadership, and providing guidance in spiritual formation to help steer churches "along the transformation path."

"We are at the beginning of doing 'a new thing,' as the Scriptures put it. We will make some mistakes, but I truly believe we are on God's path with this," Taylor said.

So how does Taylor, who will retire in July from full-time ministry and move with his wife, Karen, currently executive director of Celebrate Jesus Inc., to Georgia, assess the health of conference churches in general?

"We have not, in any statistically verifiable way, made a great impact on the conference so far," he said. "But we have done the important work of getting people's attention, blowing the trumpet, and pointing the way. I think in the next three to six years you will see a big difference in how this conference goes about doing its work."

Regardless of what still needs to be accomplished, Taylor says the past several years have not been wasted. "A lot of people have realized they need to change, but haven't a clue how," he said. "NCD is a way of helping them on what to do next, provided they have the vision and ... are willing to connect with their community."

Future e-Review articles will explore in depth the issues related to transformation and the experiences of several congregations that have embraced NCD and other processes to help them prepare for transformation.

This article relates to Congregational Transformation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.