Saturday, August 3, 2013

Two Visions, One Church

We had a new member session last Wednesday with eleven adults representing about 20 children, women, and men. We had great conversation and good questions. My favorite question: "Are you trying to make this church grow?"

I thought it was a trick question. Our church is growing. We talk about membership expectations (prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness) in every session and mention that we continue to have capital campaigns to pay down debt and/or add to facilities because we are growing and anticipate more growth. But, then, I know there are people in every church who say "I hope this church never gets bigger." So I tried to answer the question honestly. "We aren't 'trying to grow.' We're trying to be faithful to our mission. If we do that, I think it's likely that we will grow." I hoped that would satisfy but was prepared for it not to. Then she said, "Good. I just wanted to make sure you were focused on the right things."

I am rarely this blunt, but Don House is not focused on the right things. He has a plan that you can read about here. The purpose of the plan is to save the United Methodist Church (UMC). Rev. Lovett Weems and Rev. Gil Rendle are cited as co-developers of his plan. I've appreciated much of both Rev. Weems' and Rev. Rendle's work, but they are wrong too.

In a nutshell, Dr. House believes that the problem with the decline of the UMC is that we aren't spending enough money in the right ways. His plan would have 998 churches invest $161.5 million dollars between now and 2021 in their churches. This isn't surprising. Dr. House is an economist. Like a hammer thinks every problem is a nail, an economist is inherently more likely to see a problem as economic (and a theologian as a theological problem, etc.). There are some very important facts to be gleaned from his strategic plan, but there is one fundamental flaw. To measure whether or not the new inflow of cash makes a difference or not he has to control for other variables. He does this. For every variable except one. We're living in a different world today. I believe there once was a time when Dr. House's plan would work. This is not that time.

Historical data is only relevant if history is relatively static. For example, I very much doubt that Dr. House would use data all the way back to the 1800's even if it were available. The entirely different world we live in today would skew the data. Well, the world has changed a lot since the beginning of the 28 years that Dr. House has data for. Perhaps one of the most fundamental changes in reard to religion is articulated by Rachel Held Evans. She wrote recently, "Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances." What is throwing more money at staffing and programs to entice new members other than consumerism in disguise?

Let's follow Cynthia Astle's advice instead: "The Church's future lies in authenticity – proclaiming and demonstrating that following Jesus Christ genuinely transforms life here and now. It's about building beloved community beyond church walls, so that the thirsty have drink, the hungry have bread, and the stranger is welcomed. It's about making sure that those sick or imprisoned, downtrodden or desperate, have someone embrace them and reassure them that nothing, nothing, makes them undeserving of God's love and of human respect and dignity."

That sounds more like the Gospel. It also means that we will have to spend some money on our churches - on programs, staff, and buildings. One could argue that what Dr. House is really proposing is that we simply do a better job in our churches of encouraging better financial stewardship and making good choices about how to use the money that people freely share. Perhaps he has a good tool for helping churches know whether or not they are giving as faithfully as they should. So far so good. Let's do that. But let's do that because it's the right thing to do, not as a strategy to get more butts in the seats.