Raise your hand if you’ve heard these before: “Progressive churches will never grow because they’re too liberal.” “Conservative churches grow because they embody traditional values and orthodoxy.” “If you take a position on a divisive issue, people may leave, but twice as many new people will show up who agree with that issue.” These are popular phrases thrown around in the ongoing debate over church growth in the United Methodist Church (as well as in other mainline denominations). I’m not that surprised that these and similar arguments still make the rounds amongst our tribe, especially during our current round of the progressive vs. conservative steel cage match. As much as we all moaned and groaned over “Vital Congregations” and the “Call to Action” a few years ago, perhaps this “church growth” argument should have been put to rest when we learned some things from the Towers Watson report that measured characteristics of church vitality, the parts of the engine that must be fully tuned in order to drive church growth. That report was clear that theology and/or particular stances on social issues are not the key factors that drive church growth or decline. What the report did find, however, is that “vitality” is increased through a number of organizational factors such as quality of leadership, preaching, diversity of worship styles, numbers and types of small groups offered, missions giving, etc. However, anyone who’s led a healthy growing church (progressive or conservative) didn’t need a fancy (and expensive) report to tell them that.
It’s past time that we stop using the “my church is bigger than your church because we take a X stance on X social, political, or theological issue” argument, once and for all.
Progressive congregations that are in decline aren’t in decline because they’re progressive. They’re in decline for the same reason that many conservative congregations are in decline: organizational dysfunction/brokenness and general shifts in cultural attitudes/behaviors (a.k.a. the move towards being a “spiritual but not religious” nation).
There’s also a third and perhaps mostly overlooked reason for decline: the lack of ability to create and curate an interesting and compelling community of faith.
We need to flat-out admit that way too many of our churches are just plain boring and uninspiring. Part of the reason I started a new church was rooted in my experience with college students being unable to find a church after graduation. As a campus minister, I became increasingly frustrated with students who would try to find a church that had the total package of being a theological fit, having a large number of people in their age demographic, and being an overall interesting and compelling community. Their experience is not unlike that of many millennials who now consider themselves former church members (though many may call themselves Christians still). Being two years into a new church start, however, I’ve found that this isn’t limited to 18-35 year olds. People in general are just tired of being part of faith communities that seem to have lost their direction and just don’t seem to know what they’re doing anymore. It’s not only boring preaching or terrible music, but also a lack of inspiring mission and community engagement. Many people just don’t see the value a church offers anymore, and that’s because many churches don’t even know what value they have to add and/or how to add it.
So what’s the solution?
I honestly believe that if churches can become really good at innovating new ways of creating interesting and compelling community, then they will grow.
Since the days of early Christianity, churches have grown because they’ve been excellent and created interesting and compelling community. The early church created an alternative community based on the ideals of God’s kingdom that were antithetical to ideals of an oppressive empire. This was community where people cared for one another and worshiped a God, perhaps for the first time in their lives, who wasn’t out to kill them. After World War II, churches became those community gathering places of the sprawling suburbs that were filling up as soldiers returned from war and pursued the American dream. Today, suburban churches are successful when they are able to maintain that community center moniker by creating spaces for meeting, meals, recreation, learning, and gathering. Churches with rock gyms and multi-million dollar amphitheaters stand out in the suburbs among track housing, Applebee’s, and a general lack of anything interesting to do in the community. People won’t stick to, or will leave, a church if they don’t find community there. If there aren’t people with similar demographics to themselves, they’ll bolt. If there’s not a safe place for their kids to be, they’ll bolt. If they don’t quickly find other people to connect with in community, they’ll bolt. Non-denominational Christianity has done a great job in recent years at focusing on these things, while at the same time de-emphasizing any kind of polarizing or controversial theology or social stances, at least up front. It’s not until people get deeper, after they’ve connected in community, that they’re introduced to theological or social stances they may not have initially been comfortable with but will now stomach because “this is where are friends are” and “the kids love it here.” Whether or not you agree with this more or less “bait and switch” tactic, it underscores the point that connecting people in community is a key component to church growth. But will it be enough in the future?
Indeed, the idea of churches as core gathering and community building spaces is beginning to fade. The new urbanism is redefining how people gather and create community. The downtowns and urban cores of cities are growing at a rapid pace as people seek more interesting, compelling, creative, and sustainable lifestyles. In the urban core, places like coffee shops, bars, restaurants, parks, concert venues, art galleries, festivals, and the like, have become the “third spaces” where people gather and build relationships and community together. Drawn together by a sense of common purpose, urbanites are working together to make everyone successful and to make sure everyone’s needs are met. For many of these folks this is “church,” and it comes with a lot less baggage and is far more transformative than anything with a steeple on it. Folks who are spiritual but not religious go on Sunday morning hikes and find God in reading the Sunday paper at a coffee shop, and they do so because it’s just far more life-changing than sitting through a boring sermon or trying to stomach a theology they disagree with. This is not only quarantined to just urban areas, but a preview of what’s to come for suburban areas, as well. Churches need to pay attention to what is going on here and take this very seriously.
Now, I want to be careful not to suggest that churches need to adapt to cultural trends for the sake of institutional survival. Churches do, however, need to innovate and adapt because many people are still interested in and in need of “church,” but church as a life and world movement, not as a building or institution. The Gospel message, free of the institutional baggage, is still compelling. People are interested in a church that is honest about who it is and knows how to operate beyond the walls of old buildings and actually lives out the ideals of love, forgiveness, and compassion that Jesus teaches and transforms lives with. People are interested in that kind of church, yet are not waiting around for those churches to find them, especially since there are plenty of other compassionate people and organizations doing transformative work in this world.
The good news for the UMC is that there are many UM-related churches and church starts that are taking innovation seriously, and yes, many of them are progressive and many of them are working. They’re interesting, compelling, transformative, creative, and growing. Let’s not ignore this new life springing up around as we flirt with a messy divorce. New UMC faith communities are living and vibrant testaments to who we are and who we can be, and can be more so if mom and dad weren’t trying to kill each other.
These communities are only possible because there are entrepreneurial pastors and leaders who are willing to take the leap to reach new people in new places. They’re only possible because conferences, churches, and denominational leadership are willing to take that leap, as well. We need to continue to accelerate innovation by re-aligning and redistributing resources, by recruiting and training entrepreneurial leaders, by experimenting with new models of faith communities, and by instilling a culture of innovation in all of our faith communities. There’s a lot to distract us from our mission right now, and our future is uncertain. Yet, there is something that is driving this new generation forward that is connecting with people, and they’re people who aren’t interested in institutional dysfunction and divide. Indeed, they are instead interested in discovering what it means to love in the way Jesus loves, and are interested in using that love to change the world. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what compels me to move forward. So, if you’re in a place where you just want to figure out a way to get rid of the people you don’t like anymore, I suppose that’s your right. There are, however, more interesting and compelling places to be. If you’re not sure where those are, I’d invite you to take a walk out your front door and look around at your neighbors. Start there. Start with community. God will do the rest.
Image by Flickr user James Williamor. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from original.