Yes, I know “thrival” isn’t a word, but it should be. We spend so much time in the church talking about ‘survivial’ and ‘revival’ that we forget to talk about what it would look like if we truly thrived. Last year, “…for the transformation of the world” got officially added to the mission of the church. Churches focusing on “survival” or personal “revival” aren’t going to transform much of anything. However, a thriving church has a lot to offer. Here are some things we first need to stop doing in order to make space to do some new (and old) things well that send a message of hope and vitality to the world.
Age Doesn’t Matter (That Much)
First, quit fixating on how old we’re getting. A new study this past week from the Lewis Center on Leadership compared death rates in churches with the national average. How exciting is that?? Mainline churches have a special appeal to older people — they have for generations. My mother was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and I have her notes from a 1965 sessions committee meeting where they were talking about the imminent demise of the church because the membership was so old… It’s still there, and doing fine (as fine as Presbyterian churches anywhere are doing).
Plus, there are some fantastically vibrant and strong churches with specialized ministries to older adults. You know the great thing about older adult ministries? There are more and more older adults all the time! More people with more and more time for socializing and supporting meaningful non-profit ministries. Churches comprised of 50+ aged members accomplish some amazing work in the name of Jesus Christ. Selling “older” short is dumb. Older is something we will all have in common, so we should seek ways to make the “older” church every bit as meaningful and relevant as church for younger generations.
There are some incredibly ineffective and innocuous churches brimming with young families. There is a high head count, but when it comes to work that transforms the world, it isn’t there. See, age is not the most important factor. Matching a group of people with appropriate and meaningful work? That’s more like it. And at what age do people stop growing in their discipleship? Some people don’t even begin the discipleship journey until late in life.
Size Doesn’t Matter (That Much)
We have a fixation with size (must come from our patristic roots…) and a completely unfounded bias that bigger is better. Those who love huge churches gleefully compare the greatest mega-success against any number of struggling smaller congregations. However, when the playing field is leveled — comparing healthy to healthy, stagnant to stagnant, struggling to struggling — size doesn’t make much difference. One church of 10,000 is superior to ten churches of 1,000 only in terms of overhead — it costs less to maintain one huge campus instead of ten smaller ones. When mega-churches crash, the results are often more catastrophic as well. Big churches tend to end with a bang, while most small churches fade with a whimper.
On judgment day, the pastor leading the biggest congregation doesn’t win anything. If anything, we will be judged on our fruit production, not the size of our trunk. Big trees are impressive, but productive trees are more valuable. You don’t have to be big to bear fruit.
Size can actually be a hindrance when the purpose of a congregation is to provide a community of support, learning, spiritual practice, and accountability. Our gospels indicate that a certain level of intimacy is required for real growth to occur, and our healthiest monsta’-churches know that — they do most of their best work in small groups. In the church, more than in almost any other sphere, quality is much more important than quantity. Focusing on ways to improve the quality of relationships between people and God, people and others in the community, people and others outside the community, as well as the individual’s relationship with self is more important than getting the next person in the door.
Numbers Don’t Matter (That Much)
Likewise, the number of members and the number of people who attend each week (and the number of dollars they place in our coffers) tell us virtually nothing about the overall health and vitality of our faith and life together. Were church a spectator event, numbers would tell us all we needed to know. But the Christian life is about action in the world, not activity inside the church building, so counting heads inside our doors is killing time until something meaningful happens. A better thing to count is the number of lives being touched in a positive way due to our witness to Jesus Christ in the world.
We spend so much time thinking about how to grow our membership that we often neglect the membership we’re got. Whose not in the pew seems more important than who is. Healthy churches don’t get healthy because they get big. They get healthy because they work on getting healthy — then they grow because healthiness is attractive. A church that is visibly making a difference in people’s lives is the kind of church many people are looking for. It is irrational to believe that a church that isn’t doing much with or for its existing membership is going to magically do better with new people. An increase in numbers sometimes makes a church look healthy, when in fact it is just getting fat.
Popularity Doesn’t Matter (That Much)
Stop treating everyone as a demographic. It seems that if we’re popular, it doesn’t matter that we’re not pertinent. Claiming the biggest market share shouldn’t drive our decision-making. We are not striving to make new McChristians or McMethodists. Church is not a fast food restaurant, manufacturing company, car dealership, or professional sporting event. Let’s stop comparing ourselves to things we’re not and figure out what we are. Our mission is not going to bring people to us in droves. Discipleship requires sacrifice, hard work, discipline, generosity, energy, discomfort, and an occasional loss of sleep. The rewards are intrinsic — a sense of meaning and purpose, satisfaction, pride of accomplishment, and a deep-seated feeling of integrity and balance. If you post a job description for “Christian disciple” you will get fewer applicants than for “Christian believer.”
To live a Christian life in Christian community as a Christian witness to the world is going to gain as much ridicule and persecution as it will praise and respect. That’s fine. We don’t take our place in the body of Christ with an eye to personal gain. Discipleship is not about ambition, power, or adoration. It is about faithful service and selfless witness.
Vision Matters (A Lot!)
Who we are is not a limitation on who God calls us to be. Our past needs to lay a foundation upon which to build a future, not an anchor that holds us in place. Being Christian — for both individuals and congregations — is not nearly as important as Becoming the Body of Christ. What it will look like is unique to each individual and to every congregation in context. Every individual has unique gifts, skills, knowledge, experience and passions, and each congregation is a complex tapestry of uniquely gifted individuals. The work of Christ is not exactly the same for each congregation. Every congregation needs leaders who continuously monitor and investigate the answers to these questions:
- who are we?
- why are we here?
- what are the deepest passions and motivations of our hearts?
- where do we discern God is calling us as we live into the future?
Herein lies our vision — the picture that God reveals of what it means to each individual congregation to live faithfully and powerfully in their community and world. A vision should be large enough that everyone can “see” him- or herself in it, flexible enough that it can shift and evolve at a moments notice, and inclusive enough that it may continue to reveal to us things we miss along the way. Where vision is clear, compelling, inclusive, and challenging, amazing things happen. United Methodists should be compulsively seeking a vision for “the transformation of the world.”
Passion Matters (A Lot!)
Give me a group of people who care passionately about a common vision or goal, and we will move mountains. It only takes a mustard seeds worth of faith, with hearts filled with passion, we can move mountains of mustard seeds! Human beings have hopes, dreams, desires, wishes, and goals that shape their individual lives. People want hope, need grace and forgiveness, seek security and safety, hunger for meaning and purpose, and willingly sacrifice for those they love. The passion already resides in every individual. How powerful a force emerges when we can connect the work of the congregation with the passions of the people. Helping people livewhat they care most deeply about is transformative. If congregational leaders will tap into people’s deepest desires and hopes — many reflecting the heart and spirit of God working in their lives — they will unleash enormous motivated potential for change and good work.
It is much better to motivate people than to try to manipulate them. Often, a few people in the church focus on what they’re passionate about, then a great deal of time, energy, and effort is poured into trying to get others to care. When we start with the heart, we don’t have to try to talk people into anything. People give to and support what they care most deeply about. Help channel the passions of the people into the work of God and watch what the power of the Holy Spirit can do!
Faith Matters (A Lot!)
What do we really believe the church can do to change the world? If it is God’s church, there is no limit. If it is merely our church doing good work for God, we limit ourselves. It is so important to reflect on what we REALLY believe. The church can’t afford people who don’t believe in the power of God to change hearts and lives. We can’t afford people who have lost faith in the church to be a center for transformation and spiritual development. The world doesn’t need to see us fixate on what divides us and scares us instead of what motivates us and fills us with hope and joy. Our fundamental witness should be to faith in the almighty, all-loving, all-giving God, and not to fear that we might decline, lose market share, and eventually die.
Too much time is spent talking about what we aren’t doing, what we’re doing wrong, and what we shouldn’t do, instead of talking about what God is calling us to. What we are is perhaps more important than what we’re not. What we can do is worth more attention than what we can’t. The gifts, experience, and passions of the people we have are more worthwhile for our consideration than those we lack. Being the best we can be is wiser than trying to constantly be what we’re not.
God Matters (The Most)
God is the author and purpose of all we are, all we do, and all we can ever hope to be. We need to stay connected to God, or all that we do is basically worthless. If our God is a loving God, then we need to share this love to everyone. If our God is the creator of a rich, abundant cosmos, then we need to witness to this fullness and glory. If our God is a God of mercy and forgiveness, then we must do nothing to impede this grace to others. Our time together as the people of God must be rooted in God — through prayer, study, reflection, meditation, discernment, Christian conversation, and worship. Our God is an awesome God. Let’s not let others reduce God to a cartoon caricature or a mythological man upstairs. We need to learn to think theologically — to see God’s imprint on all that is. We need to recover our philosophical roots that move us to deep contemplation upon God’s will in the world today. So much of our beliefs are borrowed from simpler times, foreign cultures, and primitive worldviews — all processed through modern/post-modern lenses. For some, God stopped talking when the New Testament canon closed; but we are a people of faith who believe that God still speaks and guides and leads. We need to spend more time talking about God, God’s people, God’s creation, and God’s will and less time talking about our buildings, our polity, our parking lots, our marketing campaigns, and our programs, projects, and personnel.
If there is a reason to survive — if any congregations stand in the need of revival — it is for the purpose of thrival. We need to thrive, not merely breathe. We need to excel, not merely exist. We need to strive for greatness, not simply for goodness sake. We need to witness to the glory and grandeur of God, not one mediocre option among many.
And one last note on a connectional church: It isn’t enough that a few of our congregations thrive while others struggle to survive. We are all in this together — one large body in Christ, seeking to make disciples and transform the world. To truly thrive, we need to take responsibility for each other — the healthy helping the halt, the large helping the small, the successful helping the stagnant. The brightest future is the future that beckons to us all. Wouldn’t it be great if by our best efforts, God blessed our world in spectacular ways? I’d love to be a part of that. But if we don’t step up and do it, I have no doubt that God will find others who will.