As we move into a new year together, our 201st year as a Conference, I thought that the next three weeks would be a good time to assess where we have come from in recent years and where we think God is leading us.
Just over two decades ago we began to wake up and realize that we were experiencing a phenomenon that had never occurred in the two hundred year history of the Methodist Church. Since that time, the North Alabama Conference has been one of the leaders in honestly confronting our contemporary challenges and organizing ourselves to confront the challenges.
What we have learned:
This has been a grand two decades of self-reflection and beginning realignment by our church. Most of our thought has been stimulated by the realization that we have lost nearly 20% of our membership. We could not continue doing church the same way without getting exactly the same poor results.
Church growth guru Gil Rendle (who has been very helpful to our Cabinet in its work) notes some of the stages we have been through on our way toward positioning our church for reaching a new generation for Christ.
- We have confronted our passive barriers to growth. We discovered that we have unintentionally excluded new members and younger members simply by the unintended passive barriers that we erected. Some of our churches had to unlock the doors that lead into the church from the parking lot. We found that many congregations lacked noticeable, effective signage. We placed reserved parking signs for visitors and worked to make our church more accessible. We shortened, and attempted to make more effective our church meetings – dramatically shortening the time expended for Annual Conference, making Annual Conference more accessible for the laity.
- We debated the theological factors that might have contributed to our decline. We learned that it wasn’t a simple matter of conservative vs. liberal (such labels came to mean less and less). It wasn’t a matter of taking controversial stands on social issues (sorry, IRD and Good News, that’s virtually irrelevant to the issue of church growth). We found it was a matter of robust believe in the Trinity – a God who is constantly reaching out into the world, a Christ who is determined to have a family, constantly calling disciples. A faithful church is a church that is always growing, always making new disciples.
- We heard some saying that, for a new generation, our denominational identity had become a problem. People had moved from being apathetic toward denominational labels to being downright hostile. We were told to take “United Methodist” off our signs and letterheads. Eventually we discovered that our denominational identity could be a gift – many people in Alabama have a very positive reaction to the name “Methodist.” We have a great theological heritage and a responsible polity. Furthermore, we have found that our Conference can be a great resource in training church leaders in how to grow their churches (NCD) and a means of growing new churches (while I look forward to the day when individual congregations will start new churches, today ALL of our successful new church starts are attributable to planning and funding by the Conference).
- We realized that too many of our congregations had no expectation that they could grow; they thought that unmitigated decline was their fate. We therefore have been engaged in a decade of training churches in who to move from being inward focused to outward focused, in how to stress mission over maintenance. Although over half of our congregations are still in decline, we have at last communicated to all our churches and pastors that growth is expected, planned, and is God’s will for the church. The new Conference Dashboard is a dramatic, visible means of creating expectation for growth and recognizing and honoring those churches where God is giving a rich harvest.
- We heard those church observers who taught that the fastest growing churches, the churches of the future were “megachurches” – young, large congregations. By my count we have only two of these megacongregations, yet they account for a disproportionate share of our growth. These two congregations – Asbury and ClearBranch – have had a remarkable effect upon dozens of our growing churches, pioneering new practices and changing the attitude of decline to the expectation of growth.
All of these understandings have arisen in the last few years of reflection, critique and visioning. Next week, I’ll focus on some of the things we have learned about transformative leadership and change in our church.