Often we believe that if we do more of what does not work, it will finally work.  This is the dilemma of the consumer economy.  It leads us to the place where, when we reach a limit and still are unsatisfied, we think, if we only had more, we would be successful or satisfied.  More police, more physicians, more services, more teachers, more stuff.  This is not a solution.  It is an addiction.

This is a quote from Peter Block and John McKnight’s, The Abundant Community, and it is an incisive analysis of the current state of much thinking in The United Methodist Church.  I was talking with a pastor the other day who was beaming in response to an upward trend in his congregation’s worship attendance.

“We’re up over 20% from last year — first growth in over seven years!  We even have some of the people coming to other programs, and our giving is up!  It’s nice to be pastoring a healthy church for a change!”

“How is it healthier?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“Well, you described how your church is bigger, but then you said it was healthy, too.” I explained.

“But, that is healthier.  More is better.” he responded.

“I’m not sure I follow your logic,” I said.  “More is more and better is better and they aren’t automatically the same.  I’m overweight — in this case more isn’t better or healthier.”

“Oh, it’s not the same thing.  Having more people and more money in church are both good things.  They measure health.” he patiently explained.

“If size, activity and budget are the reasons for the church to exist, you are correct.  However, if maturing in discipleship, service to others, and proclamation to the world (the old, preach, teach, and heal model) then you would want different metrics.” I countered.

“Well, I still maintain that going from 90 to 110 on average each week is a good thing.”

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“We started a second service with praise music and videos, real upbeat and energetic.  We don’t do it in the sanctuary, it’s very informal — people bring coffee and kids sit on the floor and color.  People enjoy it because it doesn’t feel like church.” he explained.

The conversation set my mind to working on a thought exercise: what if we removed numeric growth from our equation?  What if we declared a one-year moratorium on “more” and simply asked, “If our church was defined by the present number of people involved, how would it impact our planning?”  Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • in the absence of planning how to get more people to come to us, we would need to plan how to go out to serve others — with no ulterior motive of getting them to come serve us
  • improvement and development of the existing individuals and community of faith would displace efforts to attract newcomers (which might ultimately prove attractive to outsiders…)
  • allocation of resources would shift — people would invest in what is rather than what might be
  • with quantity off the table, all that’s left to focus on is quality
  • evangelism would return to making disciples instead of inviting people to church
  • stewardship would focus on what we have instead of compensating for what we lack
  • education and spiritual formation would meet people at their various levels of maturing instead of always being designed for visitors and newcomers
  • worship could be about God again instead of being reduced to a tool for evangelism and church growth
  • faith sharing would mean more than an “each one bring one” membership drive
  • our self-esteem would rise once the burden of “not growing” was lifted from our shoulders
  • denominational leaders, websites, publications, and conferences would have to find something else to talk about — like, maybe, the spiritual revival and renewal of church for the transformation of the world (cool)

Ah, but institutional preservation is too important to us.  Survival trumps service every time.  If we don’t get more, and get it soon, we may not be around much longer to engage in these silly thought exercises.  So, instead, let’s declare a moratorium on thinking and get back to “growing the church.”  If we can just a get a few more people in worship each week, I’m sure everything will be just fine.

29 replies

  1. Changing the system to remove the guaranteed appointments will not fix the problem UNLESS you quite using the numbers game to measure a clergy person’s effectiveness.
    This is just like what all the so called school reformers want when they call for teacher evaluation to be based on the kid’s scores on some ridiculous standardized test.

      • How well do pastors equip laity to enter the priesthood of all believers? How many members are actually pursuing a path of radical discipleship? How many lives are being positively affected by the ministry of a local church? How clearly are people progressing in their faith to actually help transform the world? Let’s start here.

  2. I must respectfully disagree Brother Dan ……. I am not saying the Call System is a guarantee for effectiveness — but it does put the horse and cart in the proper places…….any improvement in any area pre-supposes, of course, that a STRONG LOCAL LAITY exists to properly, and with integrity, represent the congregation and form/guide/educate them in the path the “church” needs to take — and stay on. Perhaps my observation would have been a bit more acceptable had I included this pre-supposition. And, I know in many many congregations the existance of that “STRONG LAITY” is the exception, rather than the rule.

  3. OK Todd – horse and cart again. Perhaps some poor pastor appointments have more to do with weak laity that don’t step up and do their part. Then again, sometimes a weak pastor forces the laity to step up.

    • A pastor’s effectiveness is to some extent reflected in her capacity to help laity step up and do their part. Just blaming the laity for not stepping up doesn’t cut it.

  4. Agree with earlier comment, namely that ‘either/or’ approaches tend to produce the kind of dualistic division we see being played out in the comments to this blog post [lay/clergy; traditional/contemporary; appointment/call; and so forth]. Thankfully, Wesleyan heritage is ‘both/and.’ I’d suggest we do well to avoid ‘either/or’ framing approaches whenever practical. .o2

    • Both/And = WESLEYAN, of course.
      My position/point as a concerned observer, and not-incidentally a cradle Methodist, is that that’s the whole problem.
      We claim the name — but don’t have a clue as to what it means. IOW — we need a crash course/cliff notes on WESLEYAN FUNDAMENTALS — not fundamentalism, but basic concepts of the Renewal Movement that transformed people that Methodism once was. We have a growing contingent of brothers and sisters who have no idea of what Wesleyan Theology, Doctrine — Rules of Life per se are. It is IMHO the duty of our Pastors to stress, teach, re-teach, emphasize, re-emphasize (get my drift ??) these very foundations of what we today call United Methodism. The Genius of the Wesleyan Methodist ways have been, for the most part — lost. We spend our time on metrics — which, in and of themself I guess are important — but have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to actions following those “Rules Of Life” we have been urged to follow on our Path to Perfection — as we become the hands, feet, caregivers, and yes the FACE of our Lord Christ to those outside of our church communities.

      Poignant example — the newbie Pastor who called his mentor asking her how to prepare the Ashes for Ash Wednesday. The learned Methodist Elder was mortified at the suggestion this would be a part of a (United) Methodist Ash Wednesday Service.
      Or — if that hasn’t made the point — the musician that wanted to celebrate “REFORMATION SUNDAY” — marking the German Reformation — which, of course, “we Methodists” were not a part oof. (Thanks to Henry VIII).

      Both/And — Wide Tent Theology — Walking the Path tto Perfection — Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience — the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (improving on the 3-legged “stool” our Anglican “Cousins” still adhere to.

      -pax on this First Friday of September
      The RaBbLeRoUsEr

      • Todd,
        The problem with a crash course in Wesleyan fundamentals is that we might have to give up our precious corruptions of Wesley’s teaching, such as open communion (Wesley reserved it for class / society members), and grape juice instead of wine for communion. We would need to start teaching about original sin, the Wesleyan understanding of baptism for repentance rather for community membership, and real commitment to discipleship (How many laity, or clergy for that matter, fast three days per week/) . It is so much more comfortable to be a nice, respectable mainline church focusing on inclusiveness rather than holiness.

      • Have you looked at the 2008 Lay Speaking Ministries
        Basic Course, Participant’s Book and Leader’s Guide
        By Sandy Zeigler Jackson, Brian Jackson, available from Upper Room, Cokesbury, and Amazon? It, coupled with the materials it references, is a good start. Coupled with a study of the membership vows it would make a good new member class – or old member class, for that matter.

  5. Good post. I think that, in the church, we forget the Great Commission commanding us to make disciples- not have the largest attendance. Our churches would be healthier if we taught and led people to feed the hungry, care for the poor, work for justice as part of their relationship with God. How many people are utilizing their spiritual gifts in the world? Good thoughts!

  6. @ John — I am in on giving up everything that’s not authentic. I am also a member of “Methodism Isn’t a Mainline Denomination” (or at least it shouldn’t be…I think Dr. Scott Kisker of Wesley TS nails it down quite well.
    Here is a link to an article about his book, and a mini-interview:

    Check it out — he has reduced to writing what my point actually is.


    • 🙂 The course can benefit any who might take it – across the broad spectrum of Christendom (maybe even further). It presents one path of discipleship that emphasizes transforming the world. If I were marketing, and not evangelizing, I’d have said everyone should be a Lay Servant (Lay Speaker for most of UMC). If you examine the explicit covenant if UMC membership and the covenant for Lay Speakers implied in the Discipline, the only real difference is the detail – Lay Speakers must have taken the Basic course (much like a new member course), Lay Speakers, hold must take courses and serve in the church and the world (be good stewards growing and applying their spiritual and temporal gifts), and be accountable (Annual Report, at least).
      All UMC members should do these things, but expect to remain members regardless; Lay Speakers must at their church local conference say “I do these things.” and ask that they be recommended to remain Lay Speakers.
      Sorry, Dan. I didn’t mean to hijack your space.

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