To fill empty pews
Jesus says: Be the best you that you can be
The United Methodist Church has declined in membership every year since it was formed in 1968. The same is true of Mennonite Church USA’s 11-year history. Denominations big and small, old and new, are searching for ways to stop the bleeding.
Since 2001, MC USA has seen membership drop from 120,381 to 97,737 — an 18.8 percent decline. Today MC USA isn’t much bigger than one of the two denominations that formed it: It has only 11,066 more members than the Mennonite Church in the U.S. alone had in 1997.
Emptier pews make MC USA a typical denomination. According to a 2011 study by the National Council of Churches, 19 of the 25 largest U.S. denominations declined in the previous year.
But it’s little consolation that Methodists and Presbyterians are shrinking too. Nor can we take solace in knowing that church growth in past generations mostly came from higher birth rates. Our grandparents probably were no better evangelists than we are. But the days are over when our churches could thrive simply as havens for those who grew up Mennonite.
Numbers aren’t everything. An old saying goes, “Not everything that counts can be counted.”
But numbers matter. So every declining denomination draws up a blueprint for improvement. The United Methodists have identified four drivers of church growth: a mix of traditional and contemporary worship styles; small groups, including strong programs for children and youth; inspirational preaching; and active lay leadership. MC USA has a seven-point Purposeful Plan.
But beyond the good advice stands one more hurdle: self-doubt. A shrinking congregation wonders if it lacks the ability to grow.
To them Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). You do have what it takes. So be the best you that you can be.
Every congregation has a unique character and calling. Find your strength and build on it. Lift up what makes your fellowship a little bit like the kingdom of heaven.
You might be good at preaching the power of salvation. You might be passionate about peace and social justice. You might be known for welcoming undocumented immigrants or gay and lesbian people. You might nurture close-knit small groups. You might be blessed with racial or socioeconomic diversity. You might have a great worship band or wonderful four-part singing. You might be good at teaching the Anabaptist way of following Jesus.
Whatever you do well, work to do it better.
This doesn’t rule out the fact that you probably need to change some things too. You might have put up barriers that block the view of the kingdom within. Then you will have to “throw off everything that hinders” (Heb. 12:1): self-absorption, narrow-mindedness, fractiousness, judgmentalism.
But don’t try to become someone else. There’s only one of you, and God wants your best.
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