What’s the difference between vitality and viability when assessing the health of your church?
To me, testing viability is like checking a pulse. Can your church pay its bills, hire a pastor and conduct the basic business of holding worship, caring for the sick, studying the bible and so forth? How long can they go on as they are now, accomplishing these tasks? If no new money or energy is added to the system, when will they be depleted? Your church may have many more years of viability ahead, even if it is small and doesn’t have much money. Churches are remarkably resilient.
Viability can be measured by looking at financial trends and worship attendance over the last ten or even five years. Look carefully. For example, giving may have remained steady, but on closer inspection, one or two families may be giving more to make up for the 5 or 6 who have left. Your membership rolls may show a church of 200 members, but you may only averge 50 in worship attendance.
Vitality is something quite different, and not as easy to measure. Vitality has to do with the inertia your congregation (regardless of size) has for ministry. Vitality is found where there is a clear mission and goals being attempted (even if not always successfully). Vitality happens when people in the congregation like working together, and share common goals that touch others with the Gospel in some way.
There are ways to measure vitality, but it must be done with an objective eye. An interim pastor, coach or even an astute newcomer can see signs of health or listlessness in a congregation.
What does your congregation talk about the most? Its viability, or its vitality?
If your church were a human body, would it be viable at this time? Or would it need some outside form of support (grants, heroic gifts, endowment income, generous but invisible members) in order to survive?
If your church was a human body, would it be vital (lively) in its functioning? Would it laugh, have moments of creativity, make new friends, grieve in healthy ways, show compassion for others and embark on adventures?
Some churches are viable, but not vital. Some churches, such as new church developments, are vital, but not viable.
Here’s a resource from George Bullard that may be useful in helping you discern viability and vitality in your congregation.
And here is a set of resources called Vital Signs at the United Church of Christ website you can check out.