Synecdoche

It’s taken us a long time to get where we are.

It will take us a while to get somewhere better.

A focus on quality will take us somewhere different from a focus on quantity.

There are dozens of congregations in United Methodism who know this (though dozens out of tens of thousands is pretty depressing…)

What makes these congregations unique is that they operate from a few basic assumptions:

  1. things of lasting value are never cheap or easy to obtain/create
  2. God expects the best from us, not whatever we’re willing to give when convenient
  3. no one can improve without a signficant investment of time and effort
  4. spiritual formation is a lifelong pursuit of intentional learning and practice

In the past week I have been accused repeatedly of trying to make rare exceptions — highly committed Christian communities of faith — into a gold standard.  I have been told that I cannot expect an “average” congregation to commit to the rigors and requirements of Christian discipleship.  Additionally, it is unfair for me to make it sound like this is what Jesus expects of us by quoting selected scriptures.  I have been told that I am naive, irrational and unreasonable, and that simply because a handful of churches are doing it doesn’t mean others should aspire to do so as well.  Baloney (or bologna, if you prefer).

In literature and poetry there is a concept – synecdoche – where an example or a figure of speech is used to represent a totality.  For example, to use the phrase “communion of saints” to represent all Christians who have died or the current efforts of some church growth pundits to use “disciples” as a term meaning worship attenders.  I often talk about “the church” as if it is one single thing, and my definition of “vital congregations” is representative to my research, but is light-years away from today’s United Methodist Church leadership’s. 

The benefit of a good and true synecdoche is that it is an accurate generalization when the example does represent the universal.  It leads to a clarity and a shared understanding.  When I lift up deeply committed, healthy congregations as “vital” I am seriously lifting up a synecdoche — what these churches are, any church can become — given four things:

  1. desire — our churches are not in decline because they can’t be better; they are in decline because they don’t care enough to be better
  2. time — if it takes a church decades to get to a bad place, it will take more than a few months to get to a good place
  3. appropriate metrics — lt me say again that counting people who show up indicates nothing about health, value or impact.  A 5% increase in attendance in no way means you are doing better ministry.  A 5% increase in the number of people using their gifts in the world or a 50% increase in the number of people served in the community are a step in the right direction.  Qualitative metrics that indicate the ways people are maturing in their Christian vocation are really on track.
  4. visionary leadership — pastors, laity leaders, and denominational servants who get it — who care about the integrity of our Christian witness and support faithfulness over attendance and church budgets.

There is nothing here hard to comprehend, and nothing beyond the capacity and grasp of any existing congregation.  Certainly, many churches won’t want to do these things, but none CAN’T do these things.  Same goes for any individual in our congregations.  Those who want to, do; those who could care less, don’t.  We don’t need to make this seem more difficult that it really is.

Let the conversation continue.  I notice a very interesting phenomenon this week.  The majority of readers who agree with me are posting their comments directly on the blog.  The majority of people who disagree with me and think I am way off base are emailing me directly.  Why is this?  I encourage everyone to have the conversation on the blog.  It doesn’t bother me at all when people disagree with my points, but I think this is a very healthy and important discussion to be having.  Our constant focus on numbers will continue to kill us; but a meaningful shift to qualitative metrics could transform us.  It has happened in enough individual congregations to illustrate the process for the whole.

22 replies

  1. Don’t you think that part of the problem with measuring is that we’re so big and that our structure (now) is so corporate? I mean, the only way to weed out what isn’t working in a conglomerate of this size is to superimpose some sort of template on it. I don’t like it, don’t agree with it, and don’t see that there is any sort of authority to remove what isn’t working; but I can sure see why some people thought this vitality thing up. I am a faithful, passionate member of the clergy, and I see the problems, and with the help of God I hope to make some sort of difference. But I can only do it in the place that has been entrusted to me. As you well know, there are a lot of folks out there who simply do not have the desire to work at it, or they have a completely different idea about what “working at it” means. What do we do about that? That’s the question I keep asking myself.

  2. This is an essential place for the institutional church to be – at his time – maybe even inevitable. What I hope doesn’t happen is: We begin to re-evalute the way we measure and the things we measure so that the ability to measure necomes the focus, and the evolving ministry and energy expense becomes measurement.

  3. In addition to encouraging folks to comment here, you should encourage them to link to and share your vital thoughts on blogs, church websites, and social media pages, I know I’m proud to.
    Blessings my friend, please keep calling us to accountability.

    • Can you explain what you mean by this, Patty? Should we change simply to give ourselves the illusion of forward movement, when in reality we may simply be rearranging the trash? Or should we, amid the chaos going on around us, strive for focus and change what really matters, letting things now useless fall away?

      As I see it, we can’t change what has happened, but we can change our response to it. For me the question is always, “What is God calling us to do with the time we’re given?” And the “measuring stick” for that discernment is always “how does this confirm to the good news brought by Jesus Christ?”

      • I think we are on the same change wavelength. What we were doing as a church – as disciples seeking to live into making disciples – worked for many, many years, but it is not working now. If we do not change our approach to disciple-making, our ineffectiveness is not going to change. We should definitely not change simply “to give ourselves the illusion of forward movement.” (Well said, Cynthia.) We need to GET REAL with ourselves about who or what it is we are really serving; GET READY, through prayerful discernment and holy conferencing, to do what it is God would have us do within our denominational structure and our local churches; and GET RADICAL in our willingness to change and our eagerness to transform the world.

  4. Do you think a problem of some of our churches is that the pastors and/or leadership are afraid to offend people because they don’t want them to leave? I wonder if we discussed more the requirements of discipleship if there would be people who left. But, could that be a pruning and after a bit of time would the church thrive? Rev. Mike Slaughter and Ginghamsburg come to mind.

    • I think this is exactly the issue, and the study I published as Vital Signs revealed that our healthiest churches went through a period of loss of numbers as they got serious about discipleship, but once the congregation began producing significant fruit, they began to grow again… but very few became large churches. Accountable discipleship has a limited appeal in our modern culture.

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