We United Methodists have been rather obsessed with growth of late. Unfortunately, our obsession seems to be often driven by a fear of decline. We know the reality of decline too well. Many of our churches are shrinking, many are closing. We see what Lovett Weems has called the “death tsunami” on our horizon. If over 50% of your committed and active people are age 70 and above it’s not too hard to figure that those folks won’t be as active and committed in five years as they are now. They’re wearing out. Some are even dying. So is growth possible? Along with some of our denominational leaders I believe it is. The question is, what will it take to make it happen?
Some advocate the “Five Practices” put forth by Bishop Robert Schnase. Radical Hospitality, Extravagant Generosity, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, and Risk-Taking Mission. All of these are present in healthy, growing churches. At least some will be missing in churches that are neither healthy nor growing. I’ve written and preached on these many times in the past, so I won’t go into detail now.
Others suggest that we find a model that works and copy it. The current model receiving the most attention is Church of the Resurrection. I’ve seen enough of what they’ve been doing over the years to be impressed. They’re doing something right. They are worthy of emulation. Ginghamsburg UMC and Windsor Village are a couple other churches mentioned as leaders in the UMC. Both have powerful leaders and nationally visible ministries.
I read a blog post by Perry Noble yesterday. He offers the reasons he thinks his church will grow to 100,000. Perry’s not a UM. I don’t know of any UM churches that aspire to be that large. I know my congregation will never be that large (there are only 12,000 in the whole county – and the surrounding counties don’t have that many more). The differences between Perry and myself, between my congregation and his, and between their setting and ours are huge. But the reasons he offers apply here nonetheless.
His first claim is that “found people find people.” When people have a clear and compelling experience with Jesus, they will share with others. The Jesus living in them will be attractive to others and they will be passionate to see others set free as they have been. Can this happen in a UM church? If one looks at most of our churches today, one might think not. Most of our folks were raised in church and lack a sense of ever having been lost. It’s not so much that we’ve ever sensed a need for God as much as God’s always been there. We take God for granted. It’s also hard for us to think of ourselves as being “found.” Once we do that we might think someone else is “lost,” and that goes against our ethos of tolerance and humility. But Methodists have a strong conversionist tradition. We had it in Wesley’s day. We had it in 19th century Methodism. We can’t dismiss it as “unMethodist.” I pray we get it again.
Noble’s second reason is that they “understand that saved people serve people.” This is a little easier for us to understand. We’re pretty good at seeing needs in the community and doing something about them. Whether it’s serving at God’s Closet food pantry, offering ESL classes or doing other outreaches, our people serve.
The third reason is another challenge. He says that they “believe that growing people change.” This conviction is entirely in line with early Methodism. In fact, Wesley’s emphasis on discipleship was easily on a par with his emphasis on evangelism. Today United Methodists still believe in discipleship. The downside is that we’ve too often lost a vision for what it is. We too easily think the only distinction worth attending to is that between members and non-members. Institutional membership is largely irrelevant to our discipleship, however. We too often lack a vision of what God wants to do in our lives, how Jesus wants to refashion us in his own image. Fighting sin? Well that’s just too hard. Nobody’s perfect, right? We’re all sinners, right? God knows how weak and feeble we are – he made us this way, after all! – so surely he doesn’t expect much of us, right? The growth of the church is predicated on the growth first of the believers who inhabit it. If we are not growing in grace, if we are not being transformed, any institutional growth we see will likely be unhealthy growth.
“Because we understand we cannot do life alone” is the fourth reason. The Christian faith is more than mental furniture, more than social social activism, more than being morally upright. Christian faith is expressed with others, in worship and in discipleship. Again, this feature of Noble’s church is directly paralleled in our Methodist tradition. Wesley was a firm opponent of “solitary religion.” The problem is that we’re not. In our niceness and complacency, we want to believe we can be perfectly fine with God whatever we do or don’t do. Hunting season is on so you have to skip worship? No biggie – you’ll be worshiping with the deer and the antelope, I’m sure. Too many sporting events to be regular in worship or in face to face discipling groups? No big deal, you can read an Upper Room devotional once a quarter. Our current practices of neglecting Body Life hurt us in two ways. First, as individuals we miss out on our living connection to the Body with each other. Second, the church as a whole is demoralized by the absence of so many who are counted as members. How healthy can a Body be when half of its body parts are not functioning?
The final conviction Noble shares is one we’ve heard before: “We believe that we cannot out give God.” The expectation is that the extravagant generosity of the people will enable the church to fulfill its mission. We know the theory. We have the heritage in our Methodist tradition. We say we believe it. But we don’t do it. We need the new cars and dream homes (not only as our primary residence but on the beach, at the lake or in the mountains). We need multiple vacations every year. We’re in deep in debt. And now with the economy the way it is, we want to save it all for a rainy day.
Perry Noble is some sort of Baptist. I’m a United Methodist. As a United Methodist I see nothing in his convictions mentioned in this post that are incompatible with “our way.” Instead, I see much that seems drawn directly from our tradition. I believe that if we can recover these convictions – not just as beliefs or landmarks from our past, but as currently operational convictions – growth will happen.