It’s been eight months since the churches of the Minnesota Annual Conference began recording and reporting weekly statistical data for our nation-wide United Methodist Vital Congregations project. United Methodist churches across the country have set goals and are intentionally tracking seven important metrics:
Thanks to all the congregations that are faithfully reporting data every week. Those congregations that have technical difficulties with the system or still need help getting started by submitting their goals, please contact email@example.com in the Office of Congregational Development for assistance. For the remainder of 2012, this column is devoted to exploring priorities and practices for each of these seven vital signs of congregational health and vitality. In preceding months we’ve looked at the questions of “why measure?” and “why worship?” This month we take time to ponder “Why professions of faith?”
Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction. Unless each era passes on the purposeful message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to those who come after, the promise and peace loses its voice. Unless each individual kindles the light of God’s love in at least one other person, the flame of faith extinguishes with us.
Reaching the youngest among us
In 1972, just one quadrennium after the numeric highpoint of the newly merged United Methodist Church, Dr. Warren Hartman, chief denominational statistician, published an unsurprising but strategically important study. He discovered that of all the factors influencing church vitality: money, programs, leadership, facilities, the most significant correlation with church membership growth was the size of the confirmation class. Hartman also observed that children’s Sunday school was the most accurate barometer of congregational health. The growth of children’s Sunday school was most often followed by congregational growth within five years and the decline of children’s Sunday school was most often followed by congregational decline within ten years.
What was his conclusion forty years ago? That the primary way to effect positive numeric change is through new professions of faith and the most effective means of cultivating new professions of faith is through reaching families with children. The same holds true today.
In 2011, there were 370 United Methodist churches in the Minnesota Annual Conference. Last year, about a third reported no baptisms; nearly half reported no professions of faith; and one-fifth reported no baptisms or professions of faith. Across our state, the average United Methodist church brought four new people into relationship with Christ and commended three deceased into God’s everlasting arms. When compounded by member transfers and withdrawals, it’s clear that our process of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is a bit stalled.
Seminary professor and church consultant Lovett Weems recently completed a study of the North Carolina Annual Conference. One important counterintuitive finding emerged: that there was no statistical correlation between growing churches and the growth rate of the population area served by the church. Churches were just as likely to increase numerically in declining communities as in growing communities. And churches were just as likely to decrease numerically in growing communities as in declining communities. The good news is that healthy congregations can expect to attract new people in any ministry setting.
Practice an everyday witness
Are you acting like you expect new people to be attracted to your congregation? Are you proactive in making that invitation? Everyone knows someone who could benefit by developing a relationship with God and God’s people—but nowadays they won’t inherently see that benefit. You will need to explain it, so practice your elevator/parking lot witness. In the length of time it takes to ride down an elevator or walk to your car in the parking lot, ponder and rehearse your brief answer to three key questions:
Your story could become a story that connects someone with the story, andthat could change their life!
Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church