Reframing Church Vitality

July 19th, 2013

How do you ‘frame’ discussions concerning congregational vitality? What jargon, anecdotes, stereotypes, interpretation schemes, etc., do you use to explain why some churches are successful and others can’t seem to get with the program? If we can’t avoid our prejudices, we at least should be honest about them.

I know a man who blames his family’s financial woes on his wife’s shopping. She counters that her work brings in the lioness’s share of the family’s income and that her recent clothing and automotive purchases were work related. I entered the fray with my pastoral counseling hat on. I urged him to avoid gender stereotypes, and her to honor the fact that their assets were community property no matter who brought them into the house. Then I asked them to develop a list of shared values and long range goals. They looked at me blankly, as if I was speaking Greek.

Sociologists study how stock language and images are used to ‘frame’ our arguments. The man, the wife, and I each had jargon, anecdotes, stereotypes, interpretation schemes, etc., that we used to support our position. Often these frames give us the illusion that we are communicating when we are not. Whether the argument is about politics or church vitality, our frames have a tendency to become self-supporting, prejudicial, and polarizing. To make matters worse, framing has a way of burying under the wallboard our underlying assumptions. The argument in time enters the “everybody knows that...” phase; where both believe they are speaking truth and neither side knows where the other side is coming from.

Framing Church Decline

The United Methodist Church, like other mainline churches in America, is experiencing its fourth decade of membership decline. Promoting congregational vitality is widely considered the key to reversing this decline. The argument about how to do this tends to be framed around one or more of the following interpretation schemes:

1) Our church has become too liberal, especially in social matters, to appeal to modern Christians. We need to return to traditional values. Our budgeting should eliminate all agency personnel and projects that fail a conservative litmus test. Partisan political language and imagery are often borrowed to build this argument.

2) Many of our congregations are aging and serving declining populations. There are churches that have failed to join one new member by profession of faith this year. These congregations are a drain on the denomination as a whole. The language used here is borrowed from the business world, in which underperforming offices are simply closed.

3) Institutional survival depends upon attracting the next generation. Youth are flocking to places that offer their kind of music and use their technology (LCD projectors, video messages, social media). Young families, our target demographic, require upgraded facilities with ample parking and fun programs. This argument uses shallow snapshots, revealing only the surface details of what is happening within a congregation. This framing often lacks serious research or insight into postmodern culture.

We live now in an interesting time. Many feel that one of the above ways of framing the issue has reached the state of being objective truth. They confidently divide their colleagues into those who understand and those who are ‘unrealistic.’ Others unthinkingly approach the issue of congregational vitality by picking a la carte from the above frameworks. This muddies the expectations that we communicate to the local church.

I am convinced that there are significant numbers of congregations whose ongoing vitality defies the above interpretation schemes. Consider the following list:

  • Emerging church congregations that intentionally avoid owning property
  • Rural congregations that provide real social capital in areas of declining population
  • Ministries among transient people and minority language groups
  • Inner city and/or ecumenical fellowships that value the immediate needs of their participants, even if those people are unlikely to become contributing members.

Reframing the Conversation

Recently, I have begun to intentionally reframe how I speak about church vitality. The starting point for this new structure of language is the image of Jesus doing his daily ministry in Galilee. He intentionally developed two circles of relationships; the first circle was one of high accountability. This intentionally small circle included his named disciples, the women who funded his travels, and a handful of unnamed others (Luke 8:2, 10:1, 18:18-30). Surrounding this was a larger circle of relationships, noted throughout the Gospels as ‘the crowds.’ While it appears that baptism was offered to these people, there is no evidence that Jesus ever counted them or entered their names into a membership book. Jesus, however, did send his inner circle out to heal, teach, and accept these crowds where they lived.

Obviously, Jesus wanted the church to scatter into every culture and class. His first priority was those neglected by the existing religious institution. In using the word ‘church’ (Matthew 16:18, 18:15-17, and Revelation 1-3), he never spoke of a homogenous institution conforming to a simplistic growth strategy. Jesus’ legacy is a diversity of fellowships where the love of God can be experienced and the teachings of the scriptures are interpreted.

Out of this narrative emerges an alternative way to do institutional framing:

First, all fellowships that transform their context for good and connect people in a relevant way to the teachings of Jesus are to be valued and supported. If it is difficult for a denomination to provide appropriate pastoral leadership to smaller and more remote gatherings, then the denomination needs to rethink its leadership development process. The larger church needs to adapt to serve the local church. Accountability needs to be redefined to include the effective clergy and vital congregations that are doing ministry in difficult contexts.

Second, whatever is observed is changed. The local church is impacted, for good or ill, by how their pastors and denominational officials speak about them. If you limit your observation of a church to institutional statistics or metrics, you will obtain numbers of questionable value and teach local leaders to lie. If instead, you ask each congregation to tell stories relating to its faith experiences and list the ways they are transforming their community for good, then you will instill values that correlate with the Gospel narrative.

Third, the anti-institutional and diversity-seeking aspects of postmodern culture are more responsible for the decline of The United Methodist Church than any of the interpretation schemes presented earlier. There is a reversal going on in which things that we once counted as assets have become liabilities. Hidden within these structural problems are the seeds of future opportunities. As postmoderns seek for authentic community, they are revitalizing many congregations previously considered dead and forming new fellowships that our current structures have a hard time assimilating.

In choosing to frame church vitality in these ways, I have shifted the argument away from the current emphasis on triaging local churches. Many in our denomination consider full-time, ordained clergy to be our greatest asset and have adopted a definition of vital congregation that preserves this upper class. When I look into the future, I see a day in which effective denominations train their elders to be supervisors and support staff for a host of ministries occurring in diverse contexts. These leaders will be held accountable, not for increasing institutional membership, but for allowing people to be born again in every place.

In the meantime, denominational leaders and clergy need to consider the Wesleyan instruction, “First do no harm.” We should all become serious students of postmodern culture and Socratic questioners of commonly held church growth myths. We also need to allow the Gospel narrative to provide the framing for our corporate task. From this position of vulnerability, we may come to accept that we can’t save the current institution. We can, however, be faithful in doing the work of God’s kingdom and experience the joy of helping individual congregations become more vital.

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