The United Methodist Church, after significant collective soul-searching, has developed a list of markers for vital congregations.
1. People engaging in energetic, Spirit-filled worship
2. People professing faith in Christ
3. People growing in their faith (usually through small groups)
4. People engaged in mission
5. People supporting this mission financially.
This list captures essential practices, but it also makes me think of perhaps the deepest, most pressing, concern that haunted John Wesley: formal, conventional, outward religion. Every one of these markers can be quantified. They’re good markers, but the temptation to focus on what we can easily observe always lurks close by. If we see growing numbers, for example, we quickly assume that all the necessary inward work is happening and we can feel satisfaction. If we succumb, we will have missed the point.
In Discourse II on the Sermon on the Mount, Mr. Wesley offers this characteristic observation about conventional versus vital religion:
The religion of the world implies three things: (1.) The doing no harm, the abstaining from outward sin…(2.) The doing good, the relieving the poor; the being charitable, as it is called: (3.) The using the means of grace; at least the going to church and to the Lord’s Supper. He [sic] in whom these three marks are found is termed by the world a religious [read Christian] man. But will this satisfy him who hungers after God? No: It is not food for the soul.