Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Cure Is Worse than the Disease, Perhaps?

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.)


Scott said...

I have been in a lot of local churches, I have met few people who are "aware of and active for the cause of justice in the global millieu".

It sounds good, though...

Deanna said...

It's not just attracting new people, but trying to attract the "right" people. When resources are spent to bring in those who can only give financially, who does this benefit if it drives others away?

More and more long time active church members are being asked to sacrifice more and more for the "good of the church." In this, these members are giving so much that they are not able to receive. These are the volunteers that are unable to be fed because they are always expected to give. Is it any wonder that they become disillusioned by the institutional church?

While it is wonderful to say that you see a need and are willing to work toward a solution, sometimes to bring forth the need is all one can do.

Personally, I often dream of moving away to a place where there is an established church, with established programs to fit our families needs, that are well staffed with caring volunteers. I dream of being able to walk into the church building to experience God's love for me and my children instead of working and being "on" every time I near the building.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought of new folks in the pews as by-products of the transformed lives the members are living...a rather organic mentality, but that's the discipleship bent in me.

Clayton said...

Thanks for the hat tip, Sport!

bridger said...

I believe you are right on target in your last paragraph and I appreciate Mitch's comment. One thing I'd like to add. Congregations and churches in many denominations are declining. We definately have the opportunity to change the way we operate in order to be more relevant as a church, but more importantly, we should remember that by lifting up Christ among the people, He will draw all people unto himself, not us. We have added a praise band and many of the new "attractive' elements to our services, but I believe that the group that meets every week to pray to God before the Bible study time and worship service starts is a foundational element of our congregation. This same group has morphed into people with a desire reach out to our community. I heard Charles Roselle speak recently and he stated, "Much of what our churches are doing today, could be done even if God didn't exist" in other words we are not relying on God to do the impossible in our churches, Changing lives eternally, one at a time. Let's pray, serve and expect God to keep His promises.. which He always does. Let's pray, seeking what God would have us strive for as a church (the world-wide church, and the local church), and then follow Him to get there.

Anonymous said...

My father, who is 75, wanted me to share the following with you after reading his very first blog--ETR!

"I became a Methodist because my family were Methodists and the only choice in my village was Nazarene or Methodist. I remained Methodist because I took a job as choir leader & felt I was of value to the Lord through music. As troubles in the church grew I stayed a Methodist because most of my friends were there & my leaving would have further injured them financially & emotionally. Perhaps even spiritually. Do I enjoy Methodism? NO!!! Do I truly worship much there? Rarely."

John said...

I think that God left the Church long ago. And it was God's presence that made the Church a special organization -- one empowered in a way unique in the human experience. Without God's guiding presence, the Church, like any other institution, is doomed to fall to corruption, decay, and collapse. That is the Law of History, and it would appear inescapable. Various sincere acting out of passion for the mission of the Church is not enough to save it because they're fighting that battle alone.