Can congregations change? Can God breathe new life into congregations as surely as God’s grace can interrupt and redirect a person’s journey? Can congregations with a long pattern of numerical decline, of decreasing financial support and rising maintenance costs, of fewer new people and an increasing median age renew its purpose, reverse the trends, and grow? Can cultural values, deeply imbedded attitudes, and long-standing patterns of behavior shift so radically that leaders begin to think and practice differently in order to reach the changing community around them and the next generation?
In Oakton, Missouri (population 24), a United Methodist open-country congregation declined for forty years until only 60 people were left. However, during the last 12 years the church has grown to nearly 500 in worship, moved into a new facility, and has 150 children attending Sunday school. A licensed local pastor led the turn-around until his retirement, and now his son, another licensed local pastor, has led the congregation to start a Hispanic congregation that already has nearly 100 people attending. The church offers recovery ministries locally while globally, the congregation generously supports UMCOR and Child Rescue in the Sierra Leone Conference. Oakton United Methodist Church provides a positive witness that draws people from miles away in a county whose population is declining.
First UMC of Sikeston, Missouri, watched its attendance decline for nearly 50 years, even under the leadership of excellent pastors, until it settled into an average of 320. Congregational leaders courageously invited a Healthy Church Initiative consultation, and accepted recommendations regarding outreach, facility, staffing, and worship. They used coaches and consultants and mystery visitors. They prayed and learned and worked. They initiated community service projects, and then reached to other parts of the state and world with life-changing ministries. During the last two years, the congregation’s attendance has increased by nearly 150 people, and more young people are involved. Outreach magazine named First UMC, Sikeston, the fastest growing mid-sized congregation in the U. S.
Last year in Kansas City, a young African-American clergywoman started Renaissance, a multicultural congregation with 140 people each week, in a facility that previously belonged to a church that had dwindled to 12 members. The new church bustles with young people in one of the three poorest school districts in the state. Also, in downtown Kansas City, the Missouri Conference cooperated with a congregation from another conference to start Church of the Resurrection Downtown. They’ve converted a bar into a place of worship, with 600 people attending weekly, mostly young adults who have had no previous faith affiliation.
In Sedalia, Missouri, First UMC risked a second site and built a wonderfully inviting, child-friendly facility while also continuing worship in their historic downtown facility. Attendance that had declined for decades has grown in the last 15 years from 130 to nearly 900, with 2,500 people attending recent Easter services!
In urban St. Louis, in a story reminiscent of Elijah passing the mantle of ministry to the next generation, Immanuel UMC, which had declined to a handful of elderly members, closed its doors. The facility was given to a new church called The Gathering of St. Louis. The Gathering renovated the building, reached out to mostly young professionals, with worship that combines weekly Communion with excellent contemporary music. The congregation averages 600 people after five years, raised more than $100,000 last Christmas Eve for the Mozambique Safe Water Project and to deepen their partnership with Kingdom House, a UM community center, and has started a second site in another facility where a church has closed. The second site already averages 160 people.
In the suburban rim surrounding Kansas City, most of the United Methodist congregational growth has resulted from relocations of long-time churches that have followed the population. With new facilities adapted to the lifestyles of their communities, they are thriving. Lee’s Summit UMC averages an attendance of 1,400 today compared to 620 a dozen years ago, and Woods Chapel has an attendance of 1,200 today, up from 600. Woods Chapel provides one of the most extensive disaster-relief ministries in the state, and has maintained teams in Joplin without interruption since tornados struck nearly one year ago.
In rural Calhoun, Missouri, a licensed lay minister accepted an assignment to serve a congregation of fewer than 20 people. For four years, she has led the congregation through extraordinary growth, numerous building improvements, and an ever-expanding ministry to the community. Attendance now averages more than 40.
These United Methodist congregations are samples of a significant number of churches that have figured out how to reverse decline, strengthen ministry, broaden outreach, and move toward greater fruitfulness. They fulfill their missions in areas of population decline as well as growth: in rural, urban, and suburban settings, and with small, medium, and larger memberships. Decline is not inevitable. Resurgence of spirit and vision can happen. God can breathe new life into congregations.
Every US conference has congregations that buck the trends. The purpose behind the Call to Action is to cultivate a systemic organizational environment in our conferences and general church that fosters new life, new learning, and new missional outreach in more and more congregations so that we can more fruitfully and faithfully fulfill the mission God gives us in Christ.
Sometimes our emphasis on the joy of Easter fosters the illusion that new life in Christ is disconnected from and unrelated to death. This is untrue in our personal discipleship—dying to self is part of rebirth and new life. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24) And when we speak of the body of Christ, the church, we also discover that new life is found in pouring ourselves out, in dying to old ways, in embracing a new path in Christ.
In John 20 (NRSV), the story of the resurrection of Christ begins with the words “while it was still dark. . . .” The most momentous event in faith history happened while nearly everyone was asleep. It was discovered by grieving followers before the light of dawn. They had no idea that the days to come would be forever different from anything they had yet experienced. God had plans for them they could not possibly imagine. The same is true for us.
The resurrection of Christ renders permanent all that was revealed about God in Jesus’ earthly life—that God loves us with an everlasting love, that God’s grace extends to all, that God invites us to follow and calls us to serve and sustains us in ministry and sends us forth to share God’s way. And we discover in the resurrection of Christ the truth that life defeats death and hope breaks through despair.
What are the signs of new life in your discipleship? What are signs of new life in your congregation? Your conference?
What attitudes, behaviors, and values need to die in order for your congregation to focus on the mission of Christ? Do you believe congregations can really change?
To delve deeper, read John 20:1-18.
For stories of how churches change, read Renovate or Die: 10 Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission by Bob Farr.