Honesty and courage.
These two words may call to mind a virtuous Boy Scout or a knight of King Arthur’s round table, but to Jorge Acevedo, they are the essentials for revitalizing churches in decline.
And Acevedo should know. Grace Church, the United Methodist congregation he leads, had lost half its members in a five year period before Acevedo was appointed there in 1996. Now, Grace is a thriving church with four campuses across southwest Florida. Three of those campuses were once languishing congregations that have been revitalized (the fourth is a grocery store turned community center).
Acevedo is passionate about revitalizing declining congregations, and his denomination overall. A major research study commissioned by The United Methodist Church found that only 15 percent of United Methodist congregations scored highly on indicators of vitality like small group involvement, pastoral training of lay leaders, mission engagement, and use of topical sermon series.
Nonetheless, Acevedo doesn’t ascribe blame for the state of congregations considered “less than highly vital.”
“It’s good people who lost their way,” he said. “They get caught up in institutional maintenance . . . and slowly shift focus from the community to themselves.”
Overcoming such myopia requires a greater awareness of today’s realities, and a willingness to make difficult decisions.
“I think the world changed and the church just didn’t see,” he said, pointing to statistics about the rising average age of church members, and the racial and socioeconomic homogeneity of congregations.
“Our culture is getting more diverse. We have to find a way to reach that generation.”
Numbers vs. Stories
While many churches are aware of their numerical decline, they may be deceiving themselves as to their qualitative vitality, Acevedo said.
Acevedo recalls a friend who consulted with a nondenominational church in numerical decline. The church proudly told the story of a prostitute who had given her life to Christ in their church, been discipled, and turned her life around. The consultant then learned that the inspiring tale had occurred fifteen years prior.
“They had been banking on that story all that time [to convince themselves they were bearing fruit],” Acevedo said.
“Some churches talk about how at Thanksgiving, they feed 150 families. But what are you doing the other 51 weeks of the year?” he wonders. “They tell one or two stories of good things they are doing, but use it to justify lack of fruitfulness.”
Some congregational leaders object to standards of measurement that focus on worship attendance, addition of new members, etc., protesting that numbers do not reflect true vitality, and that anecdotal stories of transformation paint a more accurate picture.
Acevedo agrees, to a point. “Vitality is about stories,” he acknowledges.
Indeed, his forthcoming book, Vital: Churches Changing Communities and the World (coming in January from Abingdon Press), is full of stories of vital congregations, making a difference in their communities that may or may not be correlated with greater worship attendance or membership.
Some of those vital congregations would be considered numerically “small” and “very small,” proving that size and vitality are not automatically linked.
“If you’re a church of 20, and grow to 40, you’re still very small, but movement is up,” Acevedo explained.
Some megachurches, while still big overall, are slowly declining, and are not growing in vital behaviors like small group participation, vibrant worship, or service and mission.
“My numbers-averse friends are right that it’s not all about worship attendance, but it’s not true that [numbers] don’t matter,” he said. “The overall trend of attendance matters. Going from 800 to 60 tells you something. It’s denial if you don’t see it.”
Acevedo acknowledges that worship attendance is currently “a little flat” at one of Grace’s campuses, but participation in small groups is up, and professions of faith are up.
But while Acevedo is not putting too much stock in worship attendance, he is also not ignoring the problem of stagnation.
“We’re fixing it,” he said. “We’re being honest about the problem, and constantly looking at our systems.”
Such honesty is a necessary precursor to revitalization efforts, according to Acevedo. Nothing can change so long as people make excuses and blame decline on outside factors, rather than examining their own practices and priorities.
“It takes being honest about the current reality and having the courage to do something about it.”
Taking Courageous Action
That courageous response includes pastors making their priorities known and using their energies on things more likely to bear fruit, says Acevedo.
He uses the example of a men’s group that met on Saturday mornings and brought in speakers like the town dogcatcher. He had to tell the group he would not be coming to their meetings any longer, that he needed to be home with his children on Saturday mornings, and that he would be starting a Bible study for men at 6 a.m. on a weekday morning.
“You can keep doing this, but I’m going to go over here and do this,” he told them, in effect.
“You have to say some things are not important. I’ll be kind, but I’m not going to give it attention,” he said. “Pastors spend a lot of time doing things they think people want them to do. But they could do other stuff. Set up a parallel universe. Like a magnet, people are drawn to that and the old either dies its own death or gets converted.”
Not everyone will like new initiatives, of course, whether they occur alongside long-standing programs or as a result of a declining church’s “adoption” by a more vital congregation.
Acevedo experienced such resistance from some members of the two struggling congregations that have been adopted and revitalized as campuses of Grace Church. When Central United Methodist Church in downtown Fort Myers voted on whether to be adopted by Grace, Acevedo was disheartened that a significant minority of the church’s remaining congregants voted to close their doors, rather than make the changes necessary to grow and thrive as a vital congregation.
Revitalization “takes institutional and personal courage . . . that God will give to us if we ask for it,” Acevedo said. “It takes guts.”
Beyond intestinal fortitude, however, leaders need to learn how to apply core principles to their own contexts, a process Acevedo calls “translation.”
Vital aims to help pastors in that task of translation, Acevedo says, by laying out five behaviors common across vital churches, and the principles that drive those behaviors.
Vital churches provide an “incubator for discipleship,” for example, but whether that takes the form of a home-based small group ministry or niche ministries like Building Better Moms, a program of St. Andrew UMC in Frisco, Texas, will depend on each church’s context.
St. Andrew's use of the moms group as a portal for reaching new people is one of the stories told throughout the book, illustrating how principles of vitality are expressed in a variety of ways, in churches big and small, urban and suburban. Changes undertaken by churches who accept the challenge of revitalization will vary as much as the context of each congregation, but courageous acceptance of that challenge is a common thread.
“Insanity is doing same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Acevedo says. “Churches are caught in a pattern of doing yard sales to [raise money] and thinking that’s ministry."
“You can use all your energy for self-sustaining maintenance. But if you take your energy and apply it to new things out in the community, you will get different results.”