Three questions about church growth for the UMC

On Monday of this week, I was privileged to have a unique opportunity.  My advisor, Dr. Dana L. Robert, and I made a presentation to the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of The United Methodist Church at the annual meeting of their board of directors.  This was a great experience: I was honored by having the opportunity to speak to such an official group; I was happy to do something with such “real world” application; and it reaffirmed yet again the huge amount of admiration I have for Dana and the gratitude I have for being her student.  Yet what I wanted to share with you, my readers, were three questions from that presentation.

Dana and I had been invited to make this presentation because we had written an article called “World Growth of The United Methodist Church in Comparative Perspective: A Brief Statistical Analysis”.  In that article, we compared growth rates for national branches of the UMC and growth rates for national branches of independent Methodist denominations, African-American Methodist denominations (AME, AMEZ, and CME), Anglicans, Nazarenes, and Christianity as a whole.  Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the GBGM found our article provocative and wanted us to present our findings to the Board.

I won’t recount the findings of the article.  If you’re interested, you can read it online here.  Basically, the UMC is growing slower than these comparison groups in most countries around the world.  Instead of recounting the article in depth, I’d like to say something about the three discussion questions we presented to the Board.  Thomas wanted our piece to spark conversation among the board members, and Dana and I figured the best way to do that was to challenge our listeners with some questions.  I’d like to share them here, hoping they may challenge you, too.

The first question we asked the Board was, “How important is church growth to The United Methodist Church?”  Our article pointed out that the UMC was growing slower than these other groups and implied that was a problem, but that’s not necessarily the case.  I think especially as Americans and as capitalists, we think that the highest possible growth is always the best possible thing.  Indeed, as Christians we do want to make sure the gospel is available to all.  Yet there are good reasons for not buying into a mindset in which numerical growth in members is the sole important measurement of whether a church is headed in the right direction or not.  At the same time, knowing to what extent growth is important allows us to not be distracted by less important aspects of our mission.  How do we balance a desire to spread the gospel to all people with other important commitments to which God calls us?

Our second question for the Board was, “How do we balance diverse local expressions and global unity in the UMC?”  Anyone who has read the past couple of months of this blog will not be surprised by this question.  One of the points we made was that certain models of being the church may not be applicable for all national or cultural settings in which the UMC is present.  To assume they are can lead to cultural imperialism and hinder growth in those locations where they are inappropriate.  So, some adaptability is necessary.  Yet at the same time, if The United Methodist Church is to be united, not just in the United States, but globally, there must be some forms of global unity.

Third, we challenged the Board to answer, “What are the UMC’s gifts and graces relative to the world church?”  Talking about slower growth rates or declines in membership can quickly become an exercise in negative thinking in which people can end up feeling helpless and depressed.  That was certainly not Dana’s and my intention.  We asked this question out of a conviction that all parts of the body of Christ have contributions to make to the whole.  The UMC, at whatever rate it is growing, has gifts and graces to contribute.  Knowing what these are will help us to perform the ministry God has given us with effectiveness and satisfaction.

Those are the three questions then.  From the feedback we received, even though the questions weren’t part of the original research, they were just as useful to our audience as any other part of the presentation.  I pray that they may be of use to you, too.

One Comment

David Shane posted on October 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm

I was reading “Why We Love the Church” by DeYoung and Kluck recently, and they argued that, as you say, growth in number of congregants is not the most important thing. So far as I know, Paul never mentioned church size or growth in any of his epistles – he was much more concerned with growth in holiness and proper doctrine. And that in an age when church growth was a lot more critical than it is today, right?

But we should ask ourselves questions if our churches are small – like, are we getting in the way of the gospel somehow? Do we turn people away because we’re just plain mean, or because we add a bunch of man-made rules to the Christian message? Or, are we doing the opposite and not preaching the gospel at all? Some churches today have traded doctrine for non-offensive moral teachings, and the rising generation (rightly) sees no need to sit through those sermons week-by-week.

But, if your church isn’t committing those errors and is still small – well, so be it.

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