What’s wrong with this picture?

UMNS photo by Heather Hahn

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed out this telling picture from a recent United Methodist News Source story, and the way it captures the heart of the problem with the restructuring proposals coming out of the Call to Action (which I’ve critiqued here and for which I offered a different approach). The flip chart reads “Denominational Goal: 1. Stop Decline. 2. Encourage Growth.”

Now, I’m going to grant that there are times when we need to have strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth, and thinking and praying about planning about how to do those things is not wrong. It’s probably better described as the goal of this particular brainstorming session, but the title “denominational goal” is particularly telling in a Freudian sort of way.

That’s what we’re worried about.

And that’s what we’ve made our focus.

When I came to my current church, this is the exact question that was presented as the congregation’s central concern. We are losing members. We are not growing. Help us stop losing people and encourage growth. Of course in a way, that’s what needed to happen, and we measure our success in those efforts by counting how many people come in or out of the church. Fine.

But we did not develop a church growth strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth. We did one very simple, very difficult thing.

We refocused on our mission.

No numbers. No statistics.

We did our ministry, and let go of the numbers for a little bit.

The decline stopped almost immediately, because there was something about which people were passionate, and they wanted to be a part of it, so they stuck around. The growth is slow and patchy, I admit. But it’s there. Not because we have a goal to increase in number, but because we have a goal to be as faithful as we can be to our mission. Do you know what helped us do that? The strength and connection of the UMC denomination; consultants from the Annual Conference, resources from the Board of Discipleship, connecting back to mission through the Board of Global Missions, the list goes on and on. But that’s what kept us going: our mission.

It reminds me of a story entitled “Panic” in the fantastic book Friedman’s Fables. To paraphrase, a ring of dominoes finds itself in a pickle, as one by one, the dominoes fall. Each domino tries to hold its neighbor up, to stem the tide of crashing dominoes, but to no avail. Finally, one domino manages it; the crashing stops and the dominoes right themselves. The others ask how in the world that one domino was able to stay up, and it replies, “while you were all busy trying to keep others from falling, I just focused on keeping myself from going down.” This one domino held fast to its own strength, its own principle, rather than reacting to the instability around it.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What if we really tried to figure that out and commit to that? What’s a disciple? How do you “make” one? How do you know you’ve got one?

Instead, we are focused on stopping the crashing around us, on preserving our institution. Has survival of the institution become our denominational goal?

It seems to me that if we are so busy trying to save our (institutional) life, we are sure to lose it. Only when we are willing to die, really die, when we are ready to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, will we find our life saved and worth saving. Death is not a restructuring, and certainly not a consolidation of power. Death is a surrender, a release, a return to those things that have birthed us and carried us, a loss of self in the wholeness of God.

And if we can’t hear that story, today of all days… well, then perhaps we are already entombed.