Failure In An Instant

At what point do we finally wake-up to the fact that there is no such thing as a lasting, transformative “quick-fix?”  We have suffered through over 50 years of “church-in-box” programs that have produced poor results at best.  Disciple Bible Study came closest to delivering transformation, but ultimately “popular” did not translate into “effective.”  Literally thousands of people have had wonderful, meaningful, enjoyable Disciple experiences.  However, a variety of independent follow-up evaluations indicate that there is a very low retention rate, that few people adopt sustained spiritual formation practices, and few report any transformed behavior in their daily lives.  I will hear about the handful whose lives were completely changed, and I do not devalue any such experience — but unless Disciple has been an integrated component of a comprehensive developmental process of spiritual formation, it remains a pleasant experience for the vast majority.  No, our Bible studies, evangelism programs, stewardship campaigns, membership drives, and 7 Habits, 10 Keys, 12 Steps, and 40 Days remedies have done little to make us a city on the hill or a light in the darkness.  Where this occurs, there is hard work, commitment, vision and prayerful discernment shared by the many rather than the few.

Look, if you set out walking in the wrong direction, and you keep walking for thirty or forty years, depending on how far off course you are, it is going to take more than a few weeks or months to get where you need to be.  Churches that have allowed worship to become passive edutainment, stopped doing any real invitational evangelism, ignored a focus on whole-life or financial stewardship, don’t promote adult education and spiritual formation, and don’t expect and require all members to be involved in hands-on outreach and service are not just making adjustments — they are faced with changing the entire culture.  You won’t find the answer how to do this in a 200-page “we did it, you can do it too!” church leadership book.

And you won’t discover your answer in any lame “best practices” workshop, either.  Turn-around churches almost all agree: they knew what they needed to do before they did it.  It isn’t ignorance that fosters decline; it is apathy.  Churches that truly want to grow do so.  Churches that want to serve do so.  Churches that want out of financial hardship do it.  For every declining church you can name, there is a growing one just like it in most ways.  The key difference?  Declining churches expect their answer to come from the outside; growing churches seek take responsibility for their own solutions.

An example: two churches just eight miles apart.  Both, experienced membership decline from the 1990s through 2007 — older people died or moved away, no new young families, giving decreased and both congregations supplemented their finances through fund-raising dinners.  In 2007, the respective attendance of the two congregations was 67 and 63.  Congregation A looked to the pastor and the Annual Conference for assistance and direction, wanting help “attracting young families and growing the church.”  Congregation B recognized that they had very little to attract new people and that they weren’t doing anything proactive to reach out.  A core group of 21 members made a commitment to invite at least one friend, neighbor, family member, or colleague to a small group, a work project, a fellowship event, or worship each week.  2011 – Congregation A, 41 in worship and on the verge of closure; Congregation B, 121 in worship and beginning a capital campaign to renovate and expand.

In over 200 years, one key of evangelism has remained constant: personal invitation is the key to growth.  Rarely do people come to a church and stay because of the preacher.  Certainly it happens, and it happens enough that people pin their hopes on it happening in their church, but it is the exception, not the rule.  Cold calling door-to-door has some limited success when launching a new church, but it has never been overly effective (even for the Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses, whose growth is dependent on (wait for it)… families and friends).  Advertising in phone books and on billboards (and now websites) may catch a few first-timers, but if they don’t connect right away and form relationships, the retention is very low.  No, across the globe, churches grow because people who love their congregation want to share it with others.  There is no short cut or magic pill to make a congregation grow.

Same goes with finances.  The churches in the best financial shape do four things: they identify things worth spending money on, they ask people to give, and they spend what they receive on those good things, then they ask for more.  Poverty is never an issue.  Fixed income doesn’t enter into it.  Bad economy is never an excuse.  Congregations give when there is something worth giving TO.  And paying the churches bills and keeping the church out of debt isn’t good enough.  People with expensive hobbies pay their bills AND have money for the things they care about.  The only reason I have ever found for a church being in financial trouble is that the members and participants don’t care enough to support it.  Where the treasure is, there the heart is also.  When people really care about something, they invest themselves completely in it.  Those that don’t have the funds, find the funds or raise the funds.  Those who can’t afford ask those who can.  The money is ALWAYS out there — it all comes down to how badly do we want it?  How important is the work of God through our church to get us motivated to fund it?  Healthy churches never waste time asking “can we or can’t we;” their only conversation is “how will we?”  We can prayerfully hope that a huge bequest will drop in our lap, but that’s no way to build a plan.  There is no stewardship campaign that will transform a local churches financial picture.  That happens through vision, sweat, strong relationships and a Spirit-directed faith.

Our other penchant is to wait until it is too late to turn anything around.  We decline to a point where we literally have virtually nothing left, then we start looking for solutions.  Denial is one of the greatest threats to our church health.  Just as we can only deny our need to watch what we eat, exercise regularly, rest well, watch our blood pressure, etc. so long before we hit a point of crisis, we can only allow our congregational reality to decay so long before disaster strikes.  The hard reality is that our own health, vitality, and future rest squarely with us — no one else will guarantee them for us… and what worked for one church is highly unlikely to work for us.  We need a customized plan of learning, worship, giving and serving that fits us — that honors the unique gifts, skills, knowledge, talents, passions and experiences of our particular fellowship — and will generate an attractive energy that allows us to get excited enough about who we are and what we do that we want to tell and invite the world.  And such deep knowledge and integrated relationships take time.  We better get started soon.

21 replies

  1. Very good article and to the point. Every member of a UMC congregation and staff should read the article and discern if there is courage to do what you have suggested.

  2. Been reading my blog the last couple of days Dan? 🙂 hee hee hee Just kidding! It’s interesting though that many bloggers in the Methodist circles all seem to be hitting on almost identical thought processes. I share your concerns! Kudos for being a minister who has the guts to speak out!

  3. So, it is all in us. Why do we have annual conference staff then???

    It isn’t as simple as that. It is also true that we spend too much time blaming larger forces for our own failures. It seems difficult for us to find a middle on these things.

    This should also lead to a major reduction in the general church structure as well.

    • One of my realities is losing focus. The best conference staff I have experienced, poke and prod (are prophetic so I might have a place to stand and turn around again). The conference staff that have had the least impact are those who do their job description and leave change up to me who has gotten invested in what once worked.

      This is not to say staff are a panacea, but I have found some quite helpful. We don’t have a good feedback loop for conference staff, pastors, laity, or congregations. This leads to waiting for a last resort push. We could use more structure, after all we are method-ists. We could use less structure, after all it is pentecost. Blessings on our in-betweens.

  4. I definitely agree. I think that the Methodist church has developed a church-growth consultant industrial complex over the past few decades and that’s what’s driving our top-down initiatives.

    As far as invitational evangelism, what have you found to be helpful in cultivating the kind of culture in which people actually do that? Other than being a charismatic, sexy metrosexual preacher with a soul-patch who tells good jokes? I get the sense that inviting someone to a small group held at a home is less intimidating than inviting them to Sunday worship right away, and inviting someone to a cookout where church people will happen to be is even less intimidating. It seems prudent to help our parishioners by providing stepping stones towards invitational evangelism and a structure that creates more opportunities for inviting people to something rather than just saying “You’re not willing to corner your office-mates at the water cooler and browbeat them into coming to church with you? What kind of Christian are you?!!!”

    • I think you’re hitting on a good point. There’s something about the idea that we aren’t actually connecting, except for a small sub-segment of our churches. What would happen if, as pastors, we dove fully into culture of our communities?

      I don’t know if this is plausible, but I get the feeling that many of us haven’t really aligned ourselves, much less our churches, with the communities that we serve.

  5. ” Healthy churches never waste time asking “can we or can’t we;” their only conversation is “how will we?”

    The key here is “healthy churches”. This can sometimes be a very rare occurence.

    • Zuhleika — “If Only” ??
      Dan — another :SPOT ON: observation


      • Zuhleika & Todd: Apathy and denial seems to be found in abundance in the congregation that we know. It’s been my personal experience that one has to WANT to change in order for it to happen. I don’t see it there nor do I see the leadership that would help those who might be willing to risk change ask “how will we”. After all the joy and pain I’ve experienced there I still care, and it makes me sad.

        Dan – preach it! This one needs to be shouted from the hill tops.

  6. First, Dan, congratulations on your election as a General Conference delegate. You will be a vital voice for all of us who support effective change in the UMC.

    Second, this is another superb assessment of the need for personal and congregational “attitude adjustment” as a necessary first step of lasting change. Expect to be widely quoted!

    The Spring/Summer issue of The Progressive Christian containing your profoundly moving essay, “For the Love of God,” is now in the mail. You were chosen as “Best of the Web” to be reprinted in the magazine after having run on our website at Two copies of the print magazine will be in the mail to the Sun Prairie office shortly.

    All the best,
    Cynthia Astle

    • Thanks, Cynthia,

      I am excited about General Conference, and it is nice to be considered “best of…” anything!

      In Christ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s