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. Dan, I agree with you wholeheartedly. As a licensed local pastor serving her first appointment I had my first opportunity to “guide” our Church Council through the answering of questions designed to focus us for the next year’s ministry. I was disturbed to see how much the questions focused on increasing numbers – we chose to answer using percentages. For example, rather than projecting the number of people who will be involved in mission work in our church, we aimed higher by answering that our aim was to have 100% of the individuals who attend our church involved in mission work. We also chose not to add new “small group learning opportunities” but to aim to have everyone involved in at least one of the four that we currently offer. (Small church means smaller number of small groups.) I have sat down with the members of the church council to remind them that “good enough” is not good enough for the Church – just because there are problems in every other church does not mean they have to exist in our church and just because everyone everyone does it the wrong way does not make it right for us to do it the wrong way. Thanks for sharing, I am learning and being encouraged by your posts.

  2. Dan, you are right on. Keep sharing these posts. Our church is beginning a discussion of Kyle Idleman’s book “Not a Fan” at our Church Council meetings beginning this month. Jesus called (and continues to call) committed disciples, not fans or bystanders (or pew sitters if you prefer). Keep challenging the Church!

  3. You know, hanging out with you guys — Dan, John, Jay V, Ben G — must be what it was like to hang out with Jesus and his disciples. The love of God for humans, that incandescent sense that they need not be lost to the ravages of sin, burns so bright I always need shades. I so want people to know how much they’re loved, and that they simply need not live their lives enslaved to forces that rob them of the abundant health and wholeness — salvation — that God wills for them. Yet whenever I try to explain it, to invite people to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, I sound to myself like I’m being holier-than-thou, almost judgmental.

    So, Dan, how do we do what you propose without coming off as what some of my favorite authors describe as “holy Joes?” How do we “draw” not “drive,” as John says?

    • Sister Cynthia …
      What a terrific observation — “like hanging out with Jesus and his disciples” ….. stellar wordsmithing — I can’t wait to hear Dan’s response on how we draw not drive ………….

  4. Thanks for your insights Dan. I totally agree with you. This whole “vital congregations” talk reminds me of No Child Left Behind. In my area, teachers are teaching less and less because they are spending more and more time doing statics and paperwork. Of course the phrase works because students aren’t getting left behind, but that is only because they entire education system is failing.

    It appears that this is the direction our leaders want to take us. The statics they are gathering are not necessarily indicative of vitality. For example I recently had to fill out a form for my conference in which it asked us to report weekly average worship attendance (am). The problem is, we don’t do morning worship. Also we only gather for cooperate worship once a month. So my answer was zero. If I had 10K people in worship my answer would still be zero.

    I guess when it comes down to it my feeling is if our conference and district leaders are doing THEIR jobs they will know if our congregations are “vital.” But what do I know I am just a “young, inexperienced” pastor. Thanks Dan.

  5. This is exactly what the early Methodists were accused of and anyone who speaks of Wesleyan perfection gets as well. I think it is a fundamental test of our Wesleyan fidelity. Do we believe all need to be saved, all can be saved, all can be saved to the utter most?

    If we do, we will not look at the few examples as weird outliers but pioneers and role models.

    Tone issues matter here, of course. Wesley used to say we should urge people to sanctification by drawing not driving them to it.

    • I am of the “offer them Christ” school of thought. I don’t believe the church needs to apologize for having standards, expectations, rules, catechisms, creeds, doctrines, healthy dogma, or traditions. I believe we DO havce a responsibility to know and understand these things that supposedly define and describe us. Then, it is up to the individual whether she or he wants to be a part of the body of Christ. Individuals must take some responsibility for their response, but we must take responsibility for the integrity of our identity and purpose — not dumb it down or make it simplistic, not make it rigid and exclusive, but be authentic and honest. Regardless of what the current issue of Circuit Rider says about vital congregations counting “disciples” in worship, we do no one any service by equating worship attendance with discipleship. Indeed, an aspect of the disciples life is worship, but attending an institution’s Sunday morning offering is a narrow and limiting metric. Such a measure has nothing to do with the growth and maturity of the individual; it has everything to do with measuring the local congregation’s ability to “draw” them in.

      I go back again and again to the parable of the sower. The job is to scatter the seed, and to do so with commitment, focus, energy, fidelity. Do we stop to toss away rocks, pull weeds, water, hoe, thin or even harvest? No. We understand that sowing the seed — spreading the faith — will hit some good soil, but it will hit scorched earth, weedy terrain, and rocky paths as well. For me, the parallel is that we must be who we are, inviting those who wish to find their place in the body to engage with us in a lifetime process of growth, development and improvement, so that together we might live as the modern day incarnation of Christ in ministry to all the world. To continue to allow those who do not wish to serve, learn and grow to define the church, to promote a system that is dedicated to accumulating bodies merely to bump up the stats, to be a materialistic, passive, inert church — these things neither draw nor drive, and I don’t want to us to think they are an acceptable normal.

      • “Real, Ready, Radical” — I love it, Patty. Well said!

        Yes, we’re on the same wavelength, and I’m pretty sure it’s God’s vibe. Let’s pray so and keep on keepin’ on. Blessings!

  6. Dan — I’ve been following your blog for a while now and, thus, have felt a broad range of emotions in reading – anger, fear, joy, apathy, etc. This post resonates with me and what I’ve been thinking/praying/preaching about recently. Here’s are some scattered thoughts:

    1) It’s not a mystery why churches and ‘Christians’ resist authentic discipleship: it’s difficult. Not impossible, just hard. And it is so outside of the stream of the current culture (even the current ‘Christian’ culture) that it requires such a level of disengagement and focused attention that many simply opt for the easy path (basically Christian Smith’s “moral therapeutic deism”).

    2) Discipleship involves surrender to a God Whom you cannot manipulate or control. You cannot game the system to get the results you would like to see. Discipleship may very well kill you. Or at least your idea of what “church” is.

    3) Any renewal that happens in the Methodist church will not be a top-down, compulsory program or focus. It will be led by Spirit-filled people and churches who love Jesus and love the people who live around them. I’ve got a lot more that I could say, but I’ve got to write a sermon on the Transfiguration.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rev. Wes Smith

      a) Informed Laity
      b) STRONG Laity
      c) Steeped and directed by our rich Wesleyan Heritage and
      d) Understanding of how to “do life”

      I’m “in” ….. but, as has been mentioned, not all are.
      Ironically (maybe not) the scripture about the harvest being great but the workers not comes to mind.

      How about some specific steps to get to where we need to be from where we are now? WHO initiates? HOW do we rally the “troops” ??

      • Try this on, my brothers: As an active, involved LAYPERSON, I went to our pastor and Education chair and laid before them much of the resources I’ve studied to date about this topic. We had a serious two-hour discussion about how to present this knowledge to our congregation.

        The result: During Eastertide, I will convene a 7-week discussion with the title, “A Future Not Our Own.” We’ll use some of the latest resources about what’s happening to religion in general and the UMC in particular, but the participants will be invited to lead and shape the discussion. There’s no intention of getting “results” per se, but of raising awareness of what’s happening and spurring local thought and response to what it means to follow Jesus Christ where we are in our time.

        BTW, I took the title from a poem written by one of my personal saints, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, in which he says that we Christians are “prophets of a future not our own.” I urge you to look up his poem; it’s great theology in a short space.

        My point is, the “next steps” are to 1) identify leading laypeople in your congregations who “get” the idea of discipleship and new life, 2) pray and discern God’s will for your particular situation and then 3) turn them loose to inspire the rest of the congregation to mission and ministry.

      • Sister Cynthia ….

        I wanted this to come AFTER your reply but don’t have that option ……….

        B R A V O !!!
        I would be most interested to see the “syllabus” of your 7 week adventure ………. any chance you could share it?
        The only critique I would offer is in your points #1, #2, and #3….#2 should be #1 and #1 be #2 …. 🙂

  7. Dan,
    Thank you for this invitation to a very healthy conversation. I think we need to think more deeply about what we value and about what we measure and attempt to increase. The numbers game has not yielded lasting fruit. It is time to revisit the ancient patterns of discipleship to see what we are missing.

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