We need to honestly face the facts. We can try to deny it as much as we want, but the U.S. church is in decline. In a well documented book, “Restart Your Church” by Dottie Escobedo-Frank, she clearly defines the situation:
Thom Ranier, in a U.S. study of 1,159 churches (2002), said that 94% of American churches are in decline. Recent church attendance records show that in America, real attendance numbers are not near 40% as previously reported, but a shocking 17.7% (2004). “
While this study is close to 10 years old, the trends still hold true. The United Methodist Church has not grown since 1964. Less than 6% of United Methodist Churches are growing. Despite knowing the problem, we have failed to act. From the General Conference to the local church, we have attempted to tweak our programs and structures and serious effort at reform has been blocked out of fear.
The simple fact is this: Revitalization has not worked. It is time for resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15:36-38 shows us the way:
36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. (1 Corinthians 15:36-38, NIV)
We must move to the death and resurrection of the church as we know it if we want the United Methodist Church to continue to be a force to “transform the world.”
What we need is a pep talk.
Inspiration can comes from unlikely places. Meet Robby Novak of Henderson, Tennessee, who is the self-appointed “Kid President.” The video starts by Novak saying, “I think we all need a pep talk. The world needs to stop being boring. Yeah, you. Boring is easy. Everybody can be boring. But you’re gooder than that.”
While the video is powerful, this message of optimism and hope resonate once we hear Robby’s story. He has Ostseogenesis Imperfecta (a brittle bone condition) and has suffered over 75 breaks since he has been born. Bradley Montague, Robby’s brother in law, captures the essence of why this video is powerful when he states, “To hear him say, ‘Less complaining, more dancing’ has weight to it. He shouldn’t be running – yet you see in the video that he is.”
We all need to heed Robby’s call to action: “We got work to do. We can cry about it or dance about it. We were made to be awesome…Create something that will make the world awesome.”
It is time to create something “awesome!”
Jesus created something “awesome” is his 3 year ministry on Earth that changed the course of history. He did not follow conventions of worship or doctrine. Instead he focused on how a loving God yearned to save his lost people. It was a single focused mission that was willing to defy the norm for the sake of all.
Many of the Saints of the Faith, from the Apostle Paul to John Wesley and Mother Theresa, followed in the same approach. Seek the lost, serve them anyway they can, preach the Gospel and expect the amazing from God. It is a matter of walking away from our practices, preconceptions, fears and doubts and stepping out on faith.
Leave the four walls of the sanctuary. Some of the fastest growing worship services are outside the walls of the traditional church. Growing churches have been starting bible studies and worship services at bars, coffee houses, individual homes and even beaches. Find where people without a church home hang out and start meeting there.
Go for a walk and look for opportunities. We need to let go of our traditional programs and follow the lead of our community. Walk around a five-block radius around your local church and see what the needs are. One church realized that they have 3 schools within a three blocks of their church. They asked the principal how to help. Today, the church tutors struggling students, provides breakfast during state testing and provides teachers a fund to help students who need it. The church is recapturing its role as a center of the community and changing the lives of hundreds of children.
Don’t focus on money. We often allow money to limit our dreams of doing awesome things for God. One church set fear aside and started offering free Sunday AM breakfast to its poor urban community. It grew from 35 senior citizens to 150 people from the community. The free Sunday AM breakfast became a catalyst to break down the walls and reinvigorate a church. Unfortunately, when a new pastor was appointed, they ended the breakfast program during a budget shortfall. The church closed its doors in less than 6 months due to the transitory nature of the neighborhood. It lost the connection between the church and the community. We need to focus our money and resources on what is reaching the lost and cut that which does not.
Expect more. The common perception by church-goers is that seekers are unwilling to commit to anything. The more we expect, the more likely they will be to leave. A number of churches found the opposite to be true. In their new member classes, they set up a set of expectations around church attendance, inviting unchurched families, participating in discipleship, fellowship and service opportunities and giving. One church grew from 250 in average attendance to over 750 people in less than 18-months. The truth is that people want to be called to a higher standard. While we have been lowering bar, many churches have been raising it with great success.
Invite constantly. Over 65% of new church members have been invited by a friend, but many parishioners have stopped inviting people to church. They fear rejection in an era where political correctness dictates we “keep our faith to ourselves.” One college group overcame this by starting each bible study or event by asking everyone to text message three friends inviting them to next week’s bible study. The college group grew from 10 to 35 in less than 4 months. Create invite-able momentum events and create immediate opportunities for your members to invite their friends. Create a sense of urgency and amazing things will happen.
Now, stand for something awesome and start dancing.
The United Methodist Church should not be a social club focused on amassing rules, assets and cash for the sake of the organization, but be a transformative force in the world. When we focus on one awesome thing, it inspires us and compels us to action. Imagine No Malaria led by the General Conference, The Sudan Project by Ginghamsburg UMC and even feeding every hungry child within five blocks of an urban church can create a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit in our communities. When we serve God in faith, we can transform ourselves and our community.
When we die to our fears, own way of doing things and our limits and focusing on our “awesome” calling, there is no telling what may happen. Let us stop talking about revitalization and begin to focus on the resurrection of the United Methodist Church.