If there is a problem, and you come up with a plan to solve the problem, and then you learn that your plan is actually making the problem worse, you stop. To keep up the same approach in spite of evidence that it was making things worse would not be a viable option.
So then, say the problem is declining numbers in your denomination, and the plan you come up with to solve the problem is to focus exclusively on bringing new people in, but then you realize that this plan is actually turning people off and they are leaving, thereby making the original problem even worse, then what?
Dan Dick thinks that’s what is happening in the United Methodist Church, and he has written a blog post about it. He writes, “A steadily growing segment of the dear-departed is not the less active fringe, but the faithful core. Long time, deeply committed congregational leaders are packing it in and staying home.” It is becoming a trend, he continues, “for disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disheartened lifelong members to not [just] shift [denominational] allegiances, but to leave the institutional church altogether.”
In his post, he lists five responses he has come across in his research. They represent categories of responses of “a variety of deeply committed Christians who have left ‘organized religion.’” These are my summaries of his summaries:
1) Getting new people has become more important that encouraging spiritual maturation.
2) Head counts have replaced faithful lives as the measure of success.
3) There is more concern for bringing people into the building than sending people into the world.
4) Congregational resources are more frequently used for selfish, rather than selfless reasons.
5) There is an insider vs. outsider mentality in churches that precludes truly loving one another.
Rev. Dick then outlines three potential options for how the church might react: to defensively dismiss these responses, to ignore them altogether, or to take them seriously and hold them up next to the values the church professes to hold dear, and then reforming where we should.
I have written before about my opinion that trying to grow for the sake of growth actually defeats the purpose, and I am happy to read Rev. Dick’s perspective on this issue. Though in a comment exchange on his wordpress site, it appears as though his perspective is not valued by the General Board of Discipleship. At least not enough to keep him on staff there. I wonder what it means that I resonate so well with the ideas of a person the GBOD fired? Well, Beth Quick likes him too, so at least I'm in good company.
I love the church and I love serving in the church. I lament the decline in church participation as much as anyone, I suppose. But I reject the idea that the church should attempt to counter this trend by trying to be more attractive to "new people." I do not believe that the church needs to "pander to the lowest common denominator," as Dan Dick puts it.
When the church is being the church as best it can, that kind of koinonia is inherently attractive. When a local congregation is relevant to the immediate neighborhood context, aware of and active for the cause of justice in the global millieu, continually inviting an ever-deepening relationship with God through Christ, and equipping people to serve one another in love, that congregation is going to grow. Not because its trying to grow, but because growth is the natural consequence of being a healthy church - like apples are the natural consequence of a healthy apple tree.
(Hat tip to Clayton for sharing the post with me originally.)