Open Hearts...Open Doors...Open Minds

The logo for the 2016 General Conference used Matthew 28:19-20 as the key verse for the logo and for the business of General Conference. Were there divisions at General Conference? YES! Were their divisions before General Conference? YES! Are there still divisions among the people called United Methodist? Yes! We can be divided on the “issue du jour” but we must be united in keeping the main thing the main thing. The main thing for the CHURCH is to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (MATTHEW 28:19-20) NRSV. 

Many pundits and naysayers proclaim that the extinction of the CHURCH. I say NO! In the North Georgia Annual Conference of which we are a part there are those who say the Church as we know it is dying. I agree and disagree with that statement. The CHURCH will survive and thrive, the church as we know it will change, because change is a part of the life cycle of any “living” organism. The Church is a living organism and as such will experience change. The question is will change be an opportunity for growth or will it cause further division and decline? I share with you an article by Carey Nieuwhof. Carey is Lead Pastor at Connexus Community Church north of Toronto, Canada.

11 Signs your Church is Going Extinct by Carey Nieuwhof In all the conversation among church leaders about the future of the church and declining attendance, the question remains, how’s your church doing? Sometimes that can be difficult to discern. Unless you’re in a free fall right now, it can be hard to know whether your congregation will thrive, survive or take a dive in the next decade. But like most things in life, there are signs right now that will point to the direction in which you’re headed. And if you can know now, why wait? I am a firm believer that The Church (capital C Church) will survive and even thrive, but it will look different than it does now. But in the meantime, amidst a rapidly changing culture, many individual congregations are endangered species. They could easily become extinct. Change always brings dislocation, death and renewal. Personally, I want as many churches as possible to be on the side of renewal. And that starts with an honest assessment of where you are as a church today. I believe there are signs you can observe today that will tell you whether your church is going extinct. These signs are quick gut checks that you can assess easily that will hopefully lead to deeper conversation and change. If your church is showing one or two of these signs, some change is in order to optimally position your congregation for the future. If it’s showing more than half of the signs, then in my view there’s some serious work to be done. If it’s showing most or all of the signs, it’s time for some prayerful and radical repentance and reinvention before it’s too late.

1. No Sense of Urgency Growing churches have an exceptional sense of urgency. Stagnant and declining churches don’t. If every Sunday is just another Sunday—and you don’t have a burning sense that lives and eternity hang in the balance—then you’ve lost the edge that all great churches, preachers and movements share.

2. Urgency about the Wrong Things It’s not that dying churches don’t have any sense of urgency. In fact, they will often feel urgency about two things: the budget and survival. If your motive for growth is financial, you should probably close your doors or open your heart. Unchurched people can smell it a mile away when you see them as simply a means to an end. Resources and people follow vision. If your only vision is to stay afloat, the end is near. 

3. Decline Has Made You Cautious Growing churches take risks. Stagnant or declining churches don’t. Churches that aren’t growing often end up in preservation mode—they try to converse what little they already have rather than risk it to grow again. This is a critical mistake. Ask yourself, when was the last time we took a real risk? If you can’t answer that, you’re far too cautious.

4. Success Has Made You Cautious It’s not just stagnation or decline that makes leaders cautious, success does it too. Sometimes you become so successful you become afraid to break the formula. So you become cautious. You stop innovating. You risk little. The greatest enemy of your future success is your current success.  

5. Your Affection for the Past Is Greater Than Your Excitement for the Future Stuck or declining churches are nostalgic churches. They remember when everything was amazing, which clearly isn’t today. To figure this out, listen to the way people talk. Is there an excitement for what’s next, or mostly a longing for what was? When your affection for the past is greater than your excitement for the future, you’re in trouble.

6. You Don’t Understand the Changing Culture Stagnant and declining churches often see a gap develop between them and the culture. Because nothing has changed in a decade—or several decades—the world is seen at best as something they don’t understand, or at worst, as an enemy. Outsiders who come in see a church like that as, at best, quaint, and more likely as irrelevant and misguided. Jesus loved the world enough to die for it. The church should love the world enough to reach it. 

7. You Haven’t Got New Leaders around the Table Look around you. Are most of the people on your team the same people who were there five years ago? I’m not advocating for high turnover in staff, but in far too many churches there is no plan to renew leadership. Churches who position themselves for future impact intentionally integrate new voices and new leaders around the table. I try to keep a balance of established, trusted voices and new voices around our table. If all the people around your table are the same as 5 years ago, you might just all be 5 years older, not 5 years better. 

8. You Mostly Listen To the Voices of Current Members When you make decisions, who are you listening to? Hopefully, (naturally) to the voice of God and to scripture. But when it comes to human voices…whose wins the day? Too often, the voice of current church members drowns out the voice of the unchurched people you’re trying to reach. In fact, smart church leaders will intentionally hang out with unchurched people and bring their voice to the table. How you do that is up to you. That you do it is critical. 

9. Your Conflict Is About All the Wrong Things There will always be some level of conflict whenever human beings gather, so what’s your conflict about? Dying churches spend their energy fighting each other and fighting change. Growing churches spend their energy fighting for new opportunities to reach unchurched people and speaking up for the change that will impact their lives.

10. Any Growth You Have Is Transfer Growth But wait, some will say, we’re growing. We had some new members last year! That’s awesome. But who are you reaching? If your growth is mostly transfer growth, you’re pulling from an ever-smaller pool of people. If you’re reaching unchurched people with little or no church background, the future is much brighter.

11. The Core Team Is Not Fundamentally Healthy How does your leadership get along? Do you like hanging out with each other? Do you resolve conflict directly, quickly and effectively? Are you growing in your faith and in your skill set? Are you living in a way todayphysically, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally—that will help you thrive tomorrow? Are you aligned around a common mission, vision and strategy? 

As we look forward to the coming ministry year together, we will strive to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing for Rome First is stated in our mission and vision statements which are: The Mission of Rome First is Making Disciples for Jesus Christ by Loving God, Loving People and Serving the World. 

Our vision is to “Serve Rome by loving and welcoming all as partners in transformation” - We will focus on the following three priorities for the next four years. a. Adapt current practices and structures to build a culture of welcome within the walls of Rome First UMC. Be transformed internally so that we intentionally build a welcoming culture within the walls of Rome First UMC that extends to building new relationships in the community. b. Focus the gifts and resources of Rome First on transformational ministry c. Facilitate collaboration and cooperation for transformation of our community, offering a way for organizations that have needs to publicize those needs while organizations and individuals who desire to lend support are made aware of the needs in our community. The initial focus will be on the foster care crisis in our community. 

How will we accomplish our mission? We will fulfill our mission/purpose with God’s help and through the dedication, devotion and determination of the members of Rome First. The vision of Rome First will serve as our guide into the future where we will be connected to and with a coalition of complementary, collaborative community partners who seek to SERVE ROME and continue in transformational and life changing ministries for the Glory of God. 

What are some of the ways we will live “out” and live “into” our vision? What will the future look like as we seek to move from transactional to transformational ministries? What new “things” will we do? What “things” that have been part of the ministry and mission of Rome First will be “modified” into transformational ministries? What “things” will we no longer do?

The Leaders of Rome First’s One Board will continue to seek new ways to live out and live “into” the vision of Rome First. You may be asked to help on a ministry team, or you may be asked to assist in implementing some new ways of expressing radical hospitality. There will be numerous training events and opportunities to learn more about some of the “paths” that will help Rome First “live out” and “live into” our Mission through practicing radical hospitality that welcomes ALL. Rome First has an illustrious history of being on the “cutting edge” of ministry and of serving others. Our new ventures and adventures will take us on some familiar paths and will call us to “blaze” some new trails in ministry and mission.

Is Rome First going EXTINCT? I think not, but we must be ever vigilant to keep the main thing the main thing and not be distracted by debate, discourse or discussions that are “off topic” or that seek to divide. Instead, I ask you to join me by engaging in prayer, in the study of the issues, in patient listening and persevering conversation with others who hold differing opinion, and in courageous advocacy for what is right, just and good for all people. 

I’ll see you here at ROME FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH as we unite and gather to Love God, Love People and Serve the World! 

Shalom, Robert ><>