Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Insiders

"As soon as an organization begins to exist more for insiders than outsiders, it begins to die."
Bishop Robert Schnase, Episcopal Address to the #SCJ12

Ever heard of a church described as a country club?  Ever heard of a tithe referred to as dues?  Ever been a guest at a church and just handed a bulletin by an usher without a greeting?  Ever walked in and out of a church on Sunday morning without a word spoken to you?

I've heard something of the kind at every church I've served in ... All wonderful, wonderful, communities.  But, we always have big things to work on.

Unfortunately, this description of the church experience is starting to typify what is observed in established churches nation-wide - not just in the UMC.  I think it begins when priority is put on maintaining disciples over making them.  And by maintaining disciples, I also mean maintaining antiquated systems, styles of worship, and being prideful about what 'we' used to be in our respective communities.  Our established churches start to be less about growth and creativity and more about comfort and predictability.  It starts to be more about who's inside, and less about who's outside.  Which is contrary to everything Christ's radical, revolutionary ministry was about.

Bishop Schnase also laid on the Jurisdictional conference some new statistics on demographics in the UMC - the median age of United Methodists is nearing 60, while the median age of the population is in the mid-30s.  As somebody who's 30 at the moment, that's pretty scary.  But, also inspires me to do God's work.

The last I heard, in the North Texas Conference of the UMC, there are around 16 new church starts up and running right now, with many others nation wide.  But, there are 300 other established churches in the NTC, some growing, many who are not.  Our new church starts don't always flourish, but when they have a clear mission field and the means to meet needs, they do.  Established churches, however, have what should be a leg up on any church start - a building, a known presence, members.  But it's often that these things are the ones that can sink the ship.

We love our building, why change it?

We have a great reputation in this town, why do anything different?

I've been a member here all of my life, isn't our worship great the way it is?

I think that we can agree that a universal sign of a healthy church congregation is that it grows.  The purpose of the church is that ... to grow.  Growth requires doing the work for those outside the church just as much, if not more, than work for the people already inside.

At the same time, however, we do need to do the work of maintaining the ministries of the disciples we are creating.  Growing churches grow because of the connectional ministries they foster: small group and mission ministries.  It's important to have strong, dynamic worship that meets the needs of the established member and the person coming off of the street for the first time.  But accountability groups in bible study and Sunday school will keep them coming back as well.

The first step to fixing any problem is to admit that there is one.  Bishop Schnase laid one out for us.  It's time to have honest conversation on the age gap in our churches.  Clearly young people, and families, are on the outside.  How do we get them in?  How do those of us attending and serving at established churches get them to start getting radical like new church starts?  It's hard to meet the needs of everyone in any given community, but we all need Jesus, so let's make sure at least we're offering that - and the revolutionary ministry that comes with it.