Wesleyan Wisdom: Blueprint for revitalizing a UM congregation

In 1944, I walked into our four-room farmhouse and found my mother cleaning dishes in two dishpans—one for washing and one for rinsing. She was crying, and her tears were dropping into the dishwater. Troubled, almost frightened, I asked her why. She said, “They are going to put us out of the conference.”

At the time I did not understand what that meant, but I knew it was bad. The story was that during World War II, gasoline was being rationed and our pastor, who also served four other churches, said it was not worth the expense for him to drive nine miles to preach to a few women and children.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

Things turned out all right, though. Mama’s brother was an “approved supply preacher” with five churches 30 miles away, in another district. He asked his district superintendent to let him add our church to his circuit, and his request was granted. Within a year, before the war ended, we tore down our large 1904 building and salvaged enough material to construct a modest chapel that seated 80 people. Neighbors helped us, who had never darkened the church door.

Later, when the GIs came home, married local girls and received training and loans from the federal government, we held a great revival where my own daddy was converted, baptized and joined the church on the same day I did. “This is my story, this is my song.” It is why I will spend the rest of my life, energy and insight helping to save churches like Martin Memorial UMC in Detroit, Texas.


New ‘playbook’


In 2013 a new phrase has risen among us: “developing vital congregations.” Aha! So we finally recognize that the essence of United Methodism is not in the connection or itinerant system, but in the local congregation. That is where the Church meets the culture in the trenches. As stated in our Book of Discipline, it is where disciples are made who can transform the world.

The mission of the local church is to bring people into a saving, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. The mission is not to maintain a colossus of brick and mortar, or to pay clergy pensions and connectional staff. These are not bad things, but your community needs your church not as building, but as a base from which missional ministry connects with the community and world. That is why we must revitalize the local church, however large or small.

Denominational loyalty is no longer a factor in most churches, and most church conflicts end not in a fight, but in flight. When a denomination’s hierarchy comes down on a local church for any reason, we see an uncounted “vote” that is cast not with hands but with feet, silently leaving, never to return. Oh, that our bishops and superintendents and general agencies could see this. Lovett Weems is so right; the death tsunami is coming and may hit us financially as early as 2018. We need a new “playbook.”

So it is that I traveled a thousand miles west to Martin Memorial UMC. The church once had a hundred members with well over 50 in average attendance—a station church with a parsonage and no debt. Now they have 56 members and fewer than 20 on Sundays. The pastor is part-time and non-resident. Like most churches in retreat mode, tension runs high and conflict is frequent. The future seems grim.

I went because I wanted to help them, and to learn something that might be helpful to thousands of other churches in a similar situation.

In my last column I referred to the Provolutionary Cycle that all churches are prone to, no matter the size or denomination. They start with a dream, doctrine and structure, and missional ministry. Then they slip into institution-focused maintenance ministry, polarization and drop-out. A “righteous remnant” is left to either close the church, or dream again and start a new cycle.

But the new dream cannot be just a revival of the old dream. It must fit the reality of the second decade of the 21st century, based on your present congregational strengths, weaknesses and potential.


Subhead Subhead


The “playbook” I sent to Martin Memorial prior to my visit had three dimensions:

• Reading, reflecting on and discussing 15 biblical passages I had chosen.

• Driving on Sunday morning down every road within a 3-mile radius of the church, noting the address of each home where the presence of people or parked cars indicates they do not attend church.

• Engaging in intercessory prayer for people known by the congregation to be “pre-churched” or “ex-churched.”

This gave the members of Martin Memorial empirical data about the neighborhood. Now they could begin radical outreach. I told them to go, as Jesus said, “to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that my house will be filled.”

How did they do this? With 250 door-hangers and 200 hand-addressed brochures. And none of it resulted in people coming to church. So much for mass marketing! What we need is personal, not mass.

Here, step by step, is how to intercept the Provolutionary Cycle and dream again:

1. Change the image of your grounds, signage, etc., so that people who long ago stopped noticing your church will say, “Wow, something different must be going on inside.” The heavier the traffic around your church, the more important this is. Martin Memorial is on U.S. 82—a major east-west route.

2. Practice radical hospitality to match your radical outreach. Have all doors open and a greeter at every door for every occasion—Sunday school, worship, child development classes, after-school programs, etc. And stop charging fees for community groups to use the church building; remember, the county does not charge you property taxes, so let this be your gift back to the culture!

3. Blend the dress code in all worship services so that everyone feels welcome, whether they’re in “church clothes” or casual wear. Splitting congregations into “contemporary” and “traditional” groups has not brought about growth so much as division and animosity! Work creatively (and carefully) toward having only one service on Sunday if the sanctuary can hold them all. Have “singable” hymns and praise songs to lead people in glorifying God. This is inspiration by participation, not spectatorship.

4. Encourage each member of the church to practice “emphatic evangelism” with local table servers, garage mechanics, receptionists, people who are new to the neighborhood, bank tellers, colleagues at work, kinsfolk, etc. Take a moment to chat, saying things such as, “When I went through the major crisis of my life, I could not have made it without my Christian faith.” Often their response is, “I wish I could say that.” This can open the door for you to invite them to your church. Mormons do this and are growing; Methodists don’t and are shrinking. That is not the bishop’s fault, or the pastor’s!

5. Covenant with God to “accentuate the positive” in your congregation and take that attitude into business meetings. Many people quit church because of bickering and arguing at church council, finance, SPRC, trustee and program team meetings. Grace theology means two ordinary words: gratitude and graciousness. Church leaders should sign a covenant to be gracious in disagreement.

6. Don’t be over-structured. In churches of under 50 in attendance, bring everyone together in what I call a “committee of the whole”—to deal with any issue the church is facing, whether it’s about money, property, personnel or programs.

7. Hold more fellowship gatherings. Take trips, perhaps an overnight retreat for the church council. Plan banquets and decorate the fellowship hall for holiday celebrations or mother/daughter, father/son events, etc.

8. Organize and recruit individuals for support or recovery meetings. These can include groups for people who are grieving, parents and youth dealing with substance abuse, persons with diabetes, etc.

9. Start weekly class meetings so people can respond together to Jesus’ challenge: “Learn of me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Learn, learn, learn. Fundamentalists know by memory what they call “God’s Plan of Salvation,” but God does not have a plan any more than a loving parent has a plan. God has a relationship, a loving relationship that is marked by forgiveness, second chance, and a hand-up rather than a push-down. The Holy Spirit quickens, awakens and convicts us that we need Jesus. Upon accepting him, we “come home,” beginning a life-long journey that is empowered by what Wesley called “means of grace”: searching the Scriptures, prayer, communion, holy conversation with soul mates, and attending public worship.

Then commit all this to God in a covenant service, and adopt periodic “check-ups” so that all is monitored and measured. Have an altar call where pre-distributed, signed cards are dedicated. Each member covenants with God, committing to bring at least one new person to church in the coming year.

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference and the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

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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I worked with the wonderful staff at the UMR on two different stints as the editor of the NWTX UMReporter/Review. What a great staff and a wonderful ministry. I am sorry to see you close! You have brought a great legacy to the United Methodist Church through the UMR for the past 166 years. Thank you for your service and thank you for working to continue the ministry even after the offices at the UMR are closed. Good luck to all my friends there and God bless! JoAnna Willis, editor NWTX UMReporter 1992-1995 & NWTX UMReview 1998-2007.

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