Methodists are good at counting. The numerous records that have been kept over the years of “conversions,” “probationary members,” and the like, are a goldmine for historians. This penchant for noting numbers remains in our DNA today. “How many members?” and “How many in active attendance?” are the two primary questions asked when one evaluates the strength of a local church. The church growth movement did little to abate this obsession with head counting. While a growing congregation is, in fact, a sign of vitality, it’s the type of growth that we are marking that concerns me.
We Are Called to Make Disciples, Not Converts
Obviously there is a correlation between the two—one must be born again to become a disciple. And, one of the reasons I am a Methodist is because of the clear emphasis John Wesley placed on saving souls. As Wesleyans, though, we also affirm that conversion marks the beginning, and not the end of following Jesus. We should, we must, continue to celebrate each person brought to the new birth in our congregations, but we should never lose sight of the fact that baptism is just the start of life in Christ. Our church desperately needs to shift from just asking questions like “How many members?” to also asking “How is the congregation growing in Christlikeness?” This change in emphasis may equate with numeric growth, or it may not—calling people to come and die doesn’t always make for rapid growth in our time.
The Sunday Worship Gathering is Primarily a Gathering of, and for, the Faithful
Most Methodist churches I know of view Sunday worship as the primary doorway into the church. Worship styles are tailored to meet the perceived “need” of the surrounding community or “target” population. If a church is declining in membership the solution is most often thought to be found in a retooling of the Sunday worship service—making it more appealing. While worship in a local congregation must be contextual, I have found at least three problems with this approach.
First, it feeds into the consumerist mentality that has dominated the North American church for years, making worship often about personal preference. When worship services are crafted primarily because of a concern for attractiveness, worship becomes a commodity. This approach does little to make disciples; oftentimes it simply makes spectators.
Second, this method is inevitably bound to the winds of change. I find it fascinating (and saddening) to see how many churches continue to launch new, “modern” styles of worship in an effort to increase attendance. Many churches that once offered “contemporary” and “traditional” options now offer a plethora of services with differing styles often defined by generational preferences.
Third, the weight of Christian worship history testifies that the Sunday service is primarily a gathering of, and for, the faithful. This is not to say that we shouldn’t consider how our worship services can best speak in the language of our local contexts. It isn’t to say that we shouldn’t consider if our gatherings are marked with radical hospitality and welcome. But we gather in continuity with the first followers of Christ who found the tomb empty on Sunday. When worship services are designed with the primary aim of increasing attendance, often the centrality of the Story of God’s salvation in Christ is obscured. “Boy scout Sundays,” “U2charists,” and countless other services which mirror the culture, have all fallen victim to this trap.
Our Culture Needs to See Faithfulness, Not Flashiness
In an increasingly post-Christian context the viability of the Church will stand or fall on the witness of its members, not the appeal of its facilities, programs, or worship services. For five years my wife and I were a part of a church-plant in Boston, MA. It wasn’t a perfect church— there’s no such thing—but we watched with joy as the church grew significantly during those five years. While there were plenty who joined the congregation through transfer of membership (people who had moved into the city who were already following Jesus); to a person, those who were baptized into the faith came to Christ because of a relationship outside of the Sunday service. One young man, for example, first became curious about Christianity after meeting some of our members at a gardening club. For over a year, he seldom set foot in our Sunday worship services, but came every week to a bible-study/fellowship group some of our members held in his neighborhood. He was baptized on Easter this past year in what was an incredible moment for our congregation. When it came time to give a testimony about how he came to faith, he had nothing at all to say about how good our worship band was or how attractive our space looked.
From the Top, Down
Our current ways of evaluating the health of local churches need to be reexamined. Methodist pastors face an ever-present pressure to increase membership, grow the average Sunday attendance, and pay apportionments. I hear plenty of Methodist bishops talk about making disciples, yet in most cases head counting on Sunday morning and the paying of apportionments remain the primary criteria for evaluating local congregational health. If we are to see a new way of counting in the Methodist Church, and, I would argue, healthier congregations as a result; change must come from the top down. Our Methodists leaders – our bishops – must model a fresh approach: an approach that values making disciples, restoring worship to its roots as a gathering of the faithful, and finally, faithfulness in the form of relational evangelism. If our leaders model this new way of counting, our pastors can more faithfully lead and grow communities of disciples.