On Faithfulness and Sustainability: what’s the right focus?

by Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, Interim Executive,  Synod of the Covenant

At their best, do local congregations focus on making sure that they exist into the future? Or do they invest instead in fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do sustainability and faithfulness work together? When are they at cross-purposes?

By faithfulness I mean a commitment to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ; not faithfulness to a charismatic leader, a historic building, or a denomination. The Presbyterian Mission Agency has identified seven marks of vital congregations, all of them focused on a congregation’s faithfulness:  lifelong discipleship, outward incarnational focus, evangelism (not church growth, but the verbal articulation of our faith in Christ), servant leadership, inspiring worship, caring relationships, and ecclesial health.

By sustainability, I am referring to the capacity for an institution (in this case a church or other Christian body) to continue to exist into the future. Some possible markers are worship attendance of critical mass, a facility that is sufficient for the congregation’s needs (which might be rented or donated or even a home or coffee shop), adequate financial resources, and dedicated leadership.

I’ve been wrestling with the relationship between the two. For instance, my impulse is to say that faithfulness is much more important than sustainability.  However, a faithful congregation which disappears because of sustainability problems doesn’t have the chance to continue to be faithful.

I also formerly thought that faithfulness automatically leads to sustainability. But sometimes communities or neighborhoods are in decline and no matter how faithful a congregation is, future sustainability is undermined dramatically. I often wonder if it’s fair for us to expect rural Presbyterian churches to thrive in towns where no other institutions are sustainable. I can also think of churches which are very sustainable but not very faithful (think, for example, of prosperity gospel churches which rarely speak about the cross), and others which are very faithful but not very sustainable (think, for example, of a new worshiping community focusing on all of the markers of faithfulness but where too few people come to support the ministry’s projected needs financially.)

I am intrigued by a comment that came once when I was presenting on this subject:  Faithfulness and Sustainability are springboards to each other. Without faithfulness, it is hard to imagine God blessing a church so that it becomes sustainable over the long haul. Faithfulness is like a shot in the arm to building a sustainable institution. Without sustainability, though, it is hard for a church to focus on things that bring faithfulness, because the roof is leaking and the pastor can’t be paid. Sustainability lets churches keep the main thing (faithfulness) the main thing.

God bless you as your churches thrive to be faithful and sustainable!