Wesleyan Wisdom: Diagnosis – So you want to be a vital congregation?

In Michigan the 11th largest city in the U.S. is called “Dih-TROIT.” However, in northeast Texas, there is a village called “DEE-troit” with a population of 732 and a United Methodist church whose membership has gradually declined from around 100 to 56. This Easter, they had an alarmingly low attendance of 15.

I’ve just spent five days with them, talking about “re-vitalization.” If we can develop a plan for revitalizing Martin Memorial UMC in Detroit, Texas, it might be helpful as a paradigm for other churches in pretty much the same predicament.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

The Rev. Jerry Irvin, pastor at Martin Memorial, invited me there to help the congregation discover the dynamics of renewal and four-way growth: growing deeper in discipleship; growing together in Koinonia fellowship; growing outward in missional service, locally and globally; and, as a byproduct, growing larger in membership.

The first thing I told the congregation—in 13 one-on-one interviews and in the five sermons I preached—is that we need to recover from our addiction to big numbers. I used this reference: If you had 20 people in your home, you would say that your house was “packed” with friends, or fellow Christians and their special guests. But if 20 people came to worship in the sanctuary, you’d say, “Almost no one was at church last Sunday.”

Almost all students of Methodist history acknowledge that the Methodist class meeting was Wesley’s most ingenious concept. The average attendance in those meetings was a dozen. Churches of small membership are similar in that it’s easy to know each person by name, address, family relationship, job and other aspects of life’s journey. Small size is an asset, not a liability, if we can move from acting like a club with a “member/guest” mentality to a culture where we come together seeking meaning in life.

I will be sending to Martin Memorial a “Blueprint for a New Future” that is lengthy, detailed and difficult to adopt. It will cover everything from my first impression of the building and grounds, to the worship service, to my interviews with people who told me what they see as the strengths of their church and their worries, including where they think the church will be five years from now. As I preached in my fourth sermon, the question for a new future is not, “Can it be done?” but, “Are we willing to pay the price?”

Peter Drucker, one of the 20th century’s most effective corporate consultants, began every on-site visit by asking the management team: “What’s your business?” (He was amazed at how many executives fumbled for an answer to that fundamental question.) Second, he asked, “How’s business?” His parting words after that first meeting were usually, “If you keep doing business like you are now, you will soon not be doing business at all.”

His questions and conclusion are apt for thousands of our churches that need to get off the slippery slope toward closure.

During 20 years of consultations with local churches, I’ve used a model I call the Provolutionary Cycle. If drawn on a board, it looks like an upside-down horseshoe. At the lower-left end of the horseshoe is the beginning of every local church: a dream. The dream is fleshed out as a vision with a mission, and that usually involves adopting the doctrine and polity of a denomination or “mother church.” Then comes a generation of “missional” ministry—often followed, sadly, by one or more generations of “maintenance mode” ministry. In this mode, the congregation becomes very institutionalized with policies, rules, regulations, sacrosanct traditions and “clubbish-ness.” Church-ianity replaces Christ-ianity. Growth is mostly biological or by transfer of membership, and typically there are more deaths per year than professions of faith.

The Provolutionary Cycle eventually goes from maintenance mode to a state of polarization. The church becomes a house divided where people fight over a number of questions. Sometimes it’s about important issues that are tearing at the veil of unity in all faith communities. Sometimes it’s over trivial matters, driven by personality conflicts or power struggles for control of the church. This leads to contentious meetings, lower attendance on Sundays and a high dropout rate.

By then, on average, the congregation is demonstrably older than the surrounding community. The church is in “survival mode,” struggling along with few program ministries and a bare-bones budget designed to pay the necessary bills and “do what we can on apportionments.” As a United Methodist church, it’s probably now in a circuit charge with a part-time pastor, or the district superintendent is talking about merging it with another church. However, the circuit and merger options seldom result in revitalization. Lyle Schaller said it’s “like leaning two tombstones across each other to prop each other up.”

Have I just painted a portrait of your church? If so, you have two options. You can give up on becoming a vital congregation and move toward closure. Or you can dream again, putting all structure, worship and finances “on the table” and drawing a “Blueprint for a New Future.”

Causes of UMC decline

We love scapegoating in United Methodism, and the bishop and cabinet, being non-local, are our favorite scapegoats. Indeed, the near-epidemic spread of “blaming the system” is an issue that must be addressed. Our denomination must develop a model that includes more ownership by stakeholders who have remained faithful across the years with no voice in the appointment process.

Another factor we must face began in the 19th century. Over time, camp meetings, class meetings and revivals disappeared as paths to conversion. By the 1880s, Sunday school curriculum editors had deliberately introduced “gradualism” into the ethos of Methodist church education. Church camps and youth “sub-districts” still play a limited role in the spiritual growth of young people; but confirmation has become cerebral instead of emotive, and very few Christians see it as a turning point in their journeys.

A third major reason for our losses has been the movement toward ecumenism. Methodists have never claimed a monopoly on truth and we’ve taught our kids to respect all other churches and faiths. But in a sense, this strength has become a weakness. Denominational loyalty has shriveled through the years as Methodists give their blessing to children abandoning their denominational heritage after they marry persons of other Protestant traditions, Catholics, Mormons or people of other religious faiths.

Cultural trends are hurting us, too. Diana Butler Bass and George Barna have very different perspectives and processes of data-gathering, but all students of North American and European culture have seen a sharp decline in the numbers of people professing religious faith.

I have now taken you down the typical road of diagnosis. This is necessary homework, but no amount of diagnosing will revitalize a congregation. In the next column, I’ll outline what we did at Martin Memorial UMC and my proposal for how they can live into a new future.

Dr. Haynes is a retired elder from the UMC’s West North Carolina. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com


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Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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