Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Making the Internet Work FOR and not AGAINST the Church

By Junior Melo (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
High Internet Use May Account for 20% of the Decline in Religious Affiliation in the US since 1990

I use the Internet more hours of the day than I do not. Much of this is for my work, which involves a substantial amount of time not only producing resources (many of which I research by using the Internet) but also interacting directly in GBOD and UMC-related social networks and chat with church leaders across the globe via Facebook and Twitter. I also use the Internet (Google Hangouts) to meet with my Covenant Discipleship Group when I am not in Nashville, and will even be offering a Holy Saturday service online via Twitter this coming Saturday (April 19, 10 AM ET, #holysat). And I use it personally-- for free texting to stay in touch with family and key friends, to stream video to our Roku player (we don't have cable), and to play a few games on my mobile devices (but not during regular work hours!).  And, of course, there's email. And search.

In March 2014, Allen B. Downey, Professor of Computer Science at the Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Massachusetts, published "Religious affiliation, education and Internet use" in the online science, mathematics and statistics journal, arXiv, hosted by the Cornell University Library. arXiv is not a peer reviewed journal, but rather an outlet for established researchers with appropriate institutional relationships to publish their work in these fields.

The overall findings of Downey's statistical research ascribed such high correlations (p-values less than 0.01) between religious disaffiliation and three particular factors (religious upbringing, education and Internet use) that unless some additional explanatory variable or variables could be identified, these correlations may be considered compatible with causation. In particular, reductions in the rate of religious upbringing account for 25% of the observed rates of disaffiliation since the 1980s. Increased amounts of of college and graduate education account for 5% of the change. And Internet use accounts for 20% of the change since the 1990s. Rates of disaffiliation are higher, on average, as Internet use increases beyond 7 hours daily.

That leaves 50% of the causative factors unaccounted for. Within the data, there is an explanation for the other 50%-- a lack of generational replacement-- but as Downey notes, that basically comes down to birth year analysis, and birth year, of itself, cannot function as an independent variable. In other words, when you are born can't, in general,  be said to be causative.

I've already noted I use the Internet more than 7 hours per day. I am also a college graduate and hold two graduate degrees (M.Div. and  M.A. in Peace Studies). So it would appear I have at least 25% of the risk factors for becoming religiously disaffiliated. However, both my parents were raised with deep religious involvement, and so were myself and my sister, and both of us in my generation are also deeply involved in the life of the church, so that 25% is more than counterbalanced by the other 75%-- or at least the other 25% if we admit we can't account for the other 50% statistically.

So What?
Why would Internet use correlate so strongly with increases in disaffiliation? Downey's research does not attempt to answer that question.

But among these factors, and with support from Barna's most recent research (summarized here), we might be able to pinpoint better for whom a church's increasing engagement with the Internet might enhance affiliation rather than have no effect or even increase disaffiliation.

The top 4 reasons Barna identifies evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics attend church is a) to be closer to God (43%), b) to learn more about God (38%), c) a biblical call to be with other believers (34%) and because I've always attended church (28%, primarily Roman Catholics). At the same time most who attend admit they've not felt close to God in the last month (80%) or learned anything new about God as a result of the last time they attended (94%). In other words, the two most prominent driving factors for attending worship are not at all being satisfied by doing so.

So it should not be surprising that Barna also finds 40% of those who do not attend say they can find God elsewhere and 35% say the church is not relevant to their lives in any real way.

And where else might some of these folks be finding God or something that seems more relevant to their lives? Barna did not ask this question, but certainly the Internet, and particularly the social Internet, with its immediate feedback of likes and comments on content we post, is a likely candidate.

This might lead church leaders to conclude there's a mandate to reach these disaffiliated persons by using the Internet.

But putting Downey and Barna together might lead to a different conclusion.

Remember, increased Internet use is highly correlated with increased disaffiliation, so highly correlated it might be said to be causative. So it may well be the case that trying to reach people who are disaffiliated via the Internet may either not work at all, or, worse, actually lead to further disaffiliation.

For some, at least.

Just do the math. Persons not raised in the church, a rate that is continuing to rise, are already 25% more likely not to affiliate at all. If they are college educated, that jumps to 30%. Add Internet involvement, and that goes to 50%. And the later they were born, the more likely they will not affiliate at all.

In other words, the odds of a church being effective at using extensive Internet-based engagement with persons (including younger persons) with zero church background for the purpose of leading them to affiliation are not very favorable. At all. You're simply adding one more risk factor for moving people away from church life into the mix.

Short answer: Targeting the "never-affiliated Nones" with "internet church" isn't likely to accomplish much.

Okay, how about those "Nones" who had been affiliated, but now have dropped out, including that 59% of Millennials Barna notes have dropped out at some point.

They were affiliated at one point. That's significant. But even when they were, the vast majority of them weren't getting out of church what they said they would value most about it. So they've already left. Maybe they're finding that somewhere else. And from Pew we know that 72% of those who have disaffiliated say they aren't interested in reaffiliating or being part of any group larger than their immediate circle of friends, ever. If they're using the Internet, and likely they are,  they've got that additional 20% "drive away" factor in play. So again, the odds are low online strategies will be effective at generating renewed affiliation.

What these two bits of evidence taken together may say, then, is the primary value of church social media and internet sites may be far more for increasing ties with "insiders" than evangelizing or seeking to reactivate those who have become "outsiders."

So that leaves those who have been raised in the church and have not disaffiliated. For these people, and perhaps primarily for these people, the negative effects of Internet use on church affiliation may not outweigh the overall "affiliating" forces already in play. Let me suggest further, to help strengthen these affiliating forces, that online strategies for reaching and supporting these people aim squarely at the two highest factors Barna identifies for attendance-- getting closer to and learning about God. If the congregation focuses its efforts online in providing what the affiliated say they seek the most but clearly aren't getting in worship or educational opportunities (getting closer to and learning about God), it may be positioning its online ministries for maximum effectiveness.

The key in this is the church making its online ministries clearly part of its ministries, its web of communications, its work of community building within its life. Such online ministries needn't be members-only walled gardens, but the value they add needs to relate to the specific ways those already affiliated with the congregation can give witness and support to getting closer to God and learning about God as part of that congregation.

Internet: Use It... Wisely

When the Online Communion Conversation was convened in Nashville last fall, and then when the Council of Bishops acted on the recommendations of that panel of church leaders, practitioners and scholars, probably the biggest message most people heard was the call by the Council of Bishops for a moratorium on all online sacramental practice.

But that was not our first recommendation.

Our first recommendation, and in fact the first one the Council of Bishops approved in November 2013, was that:

"The Council of Bishops, in collaboration with appropriate general agency staff and other partners, actively lead the way to promote and develop excellent practices of online ministries across the United Methodist connection."

In other words, while the most widely spread outcome may have suggested United Methodists were some sort of Luddites regarding online ministries, the reality is quite the reverse. We were calling for and the bishops agreed to dramatically step up the excellence of United Methodist online ministries worldwide.

Excellence in online ministries involves not just excellence in their technical platform and execution-- and we absolutely were seeking that!-- but also and most importantly excellence in their results toward our mission as a church-- to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What I think the recent studies from Downey, Barna and Pew show, fairly definitively, is that the most likely arena in which United Methodists (or anyone in the US) will be able to develop online ministries that enhance affiliation, and so, we trust, discipleship, will be in those that focus first on amplifying the capacity of all the affiliated in our congregations, of every age and ability, to get closer to God and learn more about God, both individually and collectively.

What do you think?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Listening for Abundance, Part I: "We walk sightless among miracles"

Over the next six posts, Mike Mather, pastor of Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, shares how he has come to focus locally, listening for and learning to see the abundance of God's work already in progress among the people of the congregation and neighborhood where he is appointed to serve.

A Jewish Sabbath Prayer:
Days pass,
Years vanish,
And we walk sightless among miracles.

Hello Reverend.  Miss Rose is often out in the inner city, in her housecoat and tennis shoes sweeping the street, picking up trash.
Her caramel complexion fits in well in this block. It blends with the pink of her worn robe and the salt and pepper gray of the sidewalk.

She has a toughness and gentleness, easily holding that tension. Shes seen it all and then some. Shes no innocent. Shes known blood to run in the gutters. Shes heard the shouts, then shots, so loud as to be unnoticed.

Shes tall and the years have not bent her much.  Perhaps its all that walking, striding into the future.  She has cared for her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.  she now shares.  In her 80s she continues in the work of building community.

Piece by piece she picks it up and places it deep inside. Its alright. Shes bringing it together in ways, allowing the beauty to shine through. The glorious in the gritty.

She steps into the street. She looks both ways. Empty patchwork fields and an abundance of homes fill the street. Children, families, and papers swirl around her feet. The Spirit blows and the papers dance, sometime out of her reach. She watches, she knows where its headed.

Crushed cans and broken glass are part of her collection. She gathers up the broken and damaged and brings it home.

She watches from her porch.  Sunflowers in the front yard, broken pavement opening to the brick from generations ago.  Some homes have fences, some have none.

On her porch late in 2008 she sat and dreamed about a black President, a smile on her face.

Young people walk by as she picks up trash. They notice, but dont say anything. They walk with the easy (unknowing) confidence of the young.          They see and dont see.  Just like me. Their feet land heavy. Hers seem to glide. They laugh and talk loud. She smiles and says little. Every once in awhile they reach down and pick up a piece of paper.

Here is the slow, steady, steadfast work of community. She builds it on broken pavement. Sure this foundation is strong enough.
She sees the beauty and she wants to make it shine. She sees the strength and she wants it in power.

Kids play curb ball as she cleans the street.  They see her as in a mirror. This is how we care for one another.  We see the beauty, and build on it.

There are people doing such work, every day, all the time.

Can we see?

Miss Rose, sunflowers in the front yard, beans blossoming in the back. She knows how to grow things.

Young people notice her, while others - television reporters, teachers, preachers, even neighbors - tell them how bad their neighborhood is.

She steadily, daily, cleans the street. Does she keep it clean? No. She does her part. An invitation to others to do theirs. A witness.

Miss Rose, smiling, reads to children at the church.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Time for Alarm, or Something Else?

By Denelson83. CC-BY-SA-3.0 "

Alarming Findings

The latest findings from Barna about church attendance and the reasons people say they attend are sobering, to say the least.

Among them:
  • 51% of adults surveyed said churchgoing was either not very important or not important at all
  •  59% of Millennials (30 and under) who grew up in church have left the church at some point
  • Overall average weekly worship attendance has declined from 43% in 2004 to 36% today
  • Roughly 40% overall, and just over 50% of Millennials have not attended church in the past six months at all, with a notable and continuing rise in non-attendance beginning around 2010.
  • Those who do attend church most often say they do so to get closer to God (47%), but less than 20% of these report having felt close to God during the past month
  • The second most frequent reason cited for attending worship was to learn more about God (27%). Yet 61% of those who attended report having learned nothing new since the last time they attended.
Overall, this picture comports with the findings of a January 2012 Barna report  which found 2/3 or more of those attending at least once a month said their participation in a congregation affected their lives only marginally, if at all.

It's Probably Even Worse than That

You are reading that right. My strong hunch is what Barna is reporting now may actually be wildly better on some measures than what's actually happening in our congregations.


Because much of this research is based on self-reporting, whether online or through interviews.

And self-reporting of religious participation has been shown to be over-stated by a rate close to 50%.

More than this, the linked article just above by Presser and Stinson in American Sociological Review shows there had been substantial over-reporting for at least thirty years leading into the late 1990s, all of it tending to show an average attendance rate somewhere around 40%. That Barna found an overall decline from 43% attendance in 2004 to 36% in 2014 is still fairly close to the 40% "sweet spot" expected for self-reported attendance.

What Presser and Stinson also show is that when self-reporting is done without the pressure of an interviewer asking a direct question, such as via some forms of online reporting, also used in this study, over-reporting of religious participation becomes a less dramatic factor. 

Responding with Alarm Won't Help... Much

The real numbers are far worse than even what Barna is reporting, yet I'm advising not responding with alarm?

Why not?

Because alarm doesn't help us much. Alarm makes sure we know something is wrong, and may get us moving to do something about it. But the state of alarm itself gives us almost no clues how to make it any better. It tells us to move (or it paralyzes us!), but often makes it impossible for us to discern where or how. It gets us stuck into fight, flight or freeze, when what we may need most is focus.

Questions to Help You Focus Where You Are

And let me suggest the focus begin not at some macro level, with high-level consultations or programs others design to "fix" your situation.

First off, the data gathered by Barna are from so many different contexts that they may provide little actual insight into any particular context, including your own. If you want to learn from Barna, don't go generic. Go local.

Begin at the level of your own worshiping community and the people of the neighborhoods and social networks you and they inhabit. Ask Barna's kinds of questions right where you are. Learn from Prosser and Stinson about the mistake of direct interviewing for some of these indicators. Design an instrument people can fill out on their own, maybe on the Internet, away from any "social desirability pressure bias" a direct interview in any form will generate. Here are some sample questions related to the findings listed above.

1. Did you attend a service of worship this past weekend?

2. Did you attend a service of worship last weekend?

3. In a typical month, how frequently do you typically attend worship? __1 __2  __3 __4 or more times per month

4. Have you attended a service of worship anywhere in the past six months? 

5. On the following items, rank their importance to you on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not at all important, 2 = somewhat unimportant, 3= neither important nor unimportant, 4= somewhat important 5 = highly important).

a) Attending worship weekly
b) Attending worship regularly (once per month or more)
c) Participating in a small group (other than Sunday School)
d) Participating in a choir or other musical ensemble or solo role
e) Participating in a Sunday School or other spiritual education class
f) Participating in an outreach ministry of the church
g) Participating in an administrative committee of the church
h) Living out my religious beliefs in daily life (work, school, wider community, etc)

6. If you attend worship, please give your top three reasons for doing so, in order.
(Free response)

7. Which of these reasons were satisfied when you attended worship most recently? How frequently were these satisfied within the past month? Within the past year?

8. How much would you say your participation in a congregation affects your daily life? Not at all? A little? Some? A lot? A significant amount?

Demographic Questions (all open-ended)
1. Age
2. Sex
3. Culture(s) you identify with most (ethnicity, interest groups, etc.)
4. Relationship status
5. Relationship to this or any congregation

These questions presented in an online format, not a direct interview, could help give you a snapshot of how the kinds of indicators Barna was testing actually apply where you are. And they'll likely lead you to ponder more questions, depending on what you find. Keep following the questions that surface, and focus not on fixing, but understanding these elements of your contexts the best you can.

You can learn about attendance and some values people place on congregational life from the questions above. But there's also another kind of focus to cultivate, one that precisely involves direct interviews and deep listening. This is about listening for the abundance of gifts people have, love to share, and freely share with one another all the time. This kind of listening is about cultivating focus, yours and theirs, on the discipleship to Jesus they actually live, day by day, with its gems and warts alike. And so it's about cultivating focus on what God is doing in your midst in and through their lives. 

By putting the results of these two ways of cultivating focus side by side, you and they together, where you are, may begin to develop some clues about what congregational life that better supports and grows the discipleship they have or long to have might look like.
And then, together, where you are, aligned with the Spirit's empowering your "second focus" reveals, you might be led to the right next steps-- steps grounded not on fixing problems or meeting needs, but on amplifying the abundant gifts already present among you better than you do now. 

Next: Examples of "Second Focus" listening from a United Methodist pastor

Friday, September 13, 2013

Possible Megachurch Trend as a Cue for UM Districts?

Used by permission. CC BY-SA 2.0
Ed Stetzer, researcher with LifeWay, has just published a blog article  on Christianity Today noting what he is observing (but has not yet researched) as a trend among mega-churches and giga-churches (average Sunday attendance >10000).

Basically, he's noticing more of these large churches investing in multiple sites with substantially smaller venues than their main campus rather than expanding the size of their current site or investing in sites of roughly equal capacity elsewhere.

As he says, he hasn't done the research on just how prevalent this trend is. It will be interesting to see what he discovers when he completes that.

Meanwhile, his article includes a list of benefits of multi-site ministry by mega-churches, based on the research of Warren Bird. To Bird's list, Ed adds a possible benefit specific to multi-site megachurches where the "other" venues are substantially smaller: "multi-site may very well lead to smaller (and, I hope) recyclable buildings that does not lead to a proliferation of large, empty church caverns when neighborhoods change."

Did you catch what Ed Stetzer is saying here? Do you see that little word "when"? And behind it, do you hear an assumption? The assumption is a "successful" mega-church would not leave a "satellite" located where the population can't support it. They would far sooner put that satellite location up for sale.

What, take away the church from the people there? From one angle, yes. It's not "their" church, but a satellite of a larger body. From another angle, though, no. It's not about taking away the church, but rather making sure all the "branches" of the mega-church are as vital and viable as possible. It's a decision you make when you have a truly regional missional strategy rather than a strategy of supporting as many individual congregations as you can.

Mega-churches would do this. And they are doing it.

And mega-churches continue to set the pace in the US for modeling both the growth and the spread of vital, healthy congregations on a regional basis.

As of the 2012 Book of Discipline, the first specific role of the District Superintendent is as "chief missional strategist of the district" (2012 Book of Discipline, Paragraph 419.1). The means the DS is to be the point person to ensure each district, as a district (a geographical region, not simply a collection of individual congregations) both has a regional missional strategy and deploys its resources toward achieving that strategy in that region.

To be sure, the vast majority of United Methodist congregations in the US are not mega-churches. Nor are the vast majority of United Methodist congregations in the US anywhere near a United Methodist mega-church. In the US, we are predominantly a denomination of small and medium sized congregations. We don't need to convert them all into mega-churches to be "successful."

But maybe there is at least this bit of wisdom we can glean from how mega-churches think and act to achieve a regional footprint. Maybe if we had a much more clearly articulated district strategy, we would find ourselves more ready to think about our current congregations as satellites or branches of United Methodist congregational ministry within that district. And if we could begin to think and act in this way, we may find it much easier to recognize where and how congregational ministries need to be deployed across the district to have a maximal continuing impact on a more regional basis.

Satellite locations of mega-churches are not independent congregational entities. They are strategic missional outposts. And when their location or configuration isn't positioned to achieve the mission because of any number of changes, the congregation (main campus) re-allocates resources and often relocates meeting facilities to ensure the regional mission can be accomplished as optimally as possible.

General Conference was wise in not putting a lot of definitions around "chief missional strategist" when they added this term as the first specified duty of District Superintendents in 2012. This gives DSes a lot of freedom to innovate in the process of developing and implementing a missional strategy with and for their districts.

Here's hoping, as they do so, they may glean what they can from the wisdom of mega-churches whose approaches to a regional vision do seem to bearing significant fruit.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Limits of Convergence

Mule. Public domain.
Yesterday, August 21, 2013, marked the failure of the most successful crowdfunding
campaign in US history.

How can that be? The campaign raised more than $12 million in pledges, easily topping the previous leader by nearly $2 million. So how did it fail? Its goal was $32 million.

It didn't just fail. It failed big.

You can read about the particulars here.

So why did it fail? The linked article from ZDNet names a fundamental issue: an untenable reliance on the principle of convergence.

The device seeking the funding was to be a smartphone that contained both a smartphone and a full computer operating system on board. Held in your hand, it was a smartphone. But plugged into a keyboard, mouse and screen, or even just a screen (the phone itself could still be used as a keyboard and touch device for navigation) it became a PC running a fully featured open source operating system.

The whole idea was convergence. Why carry around a laptop, a phone, and a tablet when you could carry just one phone-sized device that could effectively do what all three do. Such convergence has already happened to some degree between laptops and phones in the form of tablets and "phablets," but only by compromising the PC experience considerably. With few exceptions, you can't do everything on a tablet you can on a PC. (Microsoft's Surface Pro comes the closest to blurring this line completely). So you still kind of need all three devices, or at least two of them (Surface Pro and a phone).

But this device would be different. It would be fully a smartphone with a reasonably sized screen you could still carry in your pocket, and fully a PC, doing everything a PC could do. It promised full convergence on a single device, eliminating the need for tablets and PCs entirely.

Well, yes. But also no.

Here's the deal.

As soon as you plugged in the peripherals, the phone became a PC, and no longer a phone. And as soon as you unplugged them, it became a phone, and not a PC. It was both devices in the same device, but it was not possible to multi-task between the devices simultaneously, as you could if you had both a phone and a PC. You would have to stop it being a PC to get information from the phone, or use it as a phone, and you would have to stop it being a phone to get information from the PC, or use it as a PC.

Okay, so let's say you actually could use it as a phone and as a PC at once. Let's say you didn't have to unplug it to access the phone OS and the PC OS were still running at the same time, maybe in a separate window. You've still got a mobile phone that's hard to use as a mobile phone because if it's in PC mode, it's, well, plugged in!

In other words, the problem isn't just technical.

It's fundamental.

As fundamental as the genetics that almost always prevent mules (hybrids of donkeys and horses) from reproducing.

Convergence done this way just doesn't work.

That's because it fails to take into account how people actually use the various devices in relationship to each other-- what each device is actually for. We use both phones and PCs (and sometimes tablets) all at once to do different things also all at once. If we're working on significant documents, the PC is our primary device, and we might use the phone or tablet as an ancillary device to handle other tasks (talking to people, checking email or Facebook, replying to a text, or doing a quick search, for example). Despite all we've been told about the dangers of media multi-tasking (which are considerable), we still expect to be able to multi-task, and such multi-tasking is far more efficient when we're doing sufficiently different tasks on separate devices specialized for those tasks.

It's kind of like trying to converge congregations and discipling groups into an "all in one" package.

Congregations are typically best at things like public worship, teaching basic doctrine, creating systems of care for each other, and being a trusted institutional partner and player in the community. They can do all of these things and fulfill their public role of welcoming and including all who wish to participate.

Discipling groups (or here) are specialized in highly accountable relationships that lead, encourage, and even challenge people to grow in discipleship and holiness of heart and life in ways congregations can't do while also being "public." 

As the Wesleys knew and practiced, we actually need both to be running concurrently. That's why they hadn't allowed societies to celebrate sacraments (the work of congregations), nor did they expect congregations to focus much on intensive formation for holy living (what the societies did through society meetings, class meetings and bands). Trying to converge these two different, yet related, kinds of Christian communities with two different, yet related, aims and capacities, ultimately turns out not to work all that well for either, nor especially for the "end user"-- the disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to grow in holiness of heart and life by attending upon all the ordinances of God. 

We need them both-- each doing its particular thing well, with some overlap here and there perhaps, but no attempt by either to confuse its mission for the mission of the other.

We did get a lot of people by trying convergence as Methodists for maybe a century in the US, from roughly 1840-1940. In fact, we were the largest Protestant denomination(s) in the land, often by far, for quite a few of those years. Though we lost that place during and after WW II, we regained it in the union that created The United Methodist Church in 1968.

Yes, we had more people than anyone. In fact, more people than any American Protestant denomination in history.

But was it any more of an actual success, if the goal of missional Methodism was missed?

The UMC, US Church Markets and the Rule of Three (Part 2): Two Possible Hopeful Futures

(Part 2 of 2. Part 1 is here)

There are (at least) two possible hopeful futures for The UMC in the US. One is to return to generalist status. Another is to capitalize on our specialist status.

Return to Generalist Status through Massive Mergers

First things first, though. A key question:
Is there real missional value in being a generalist church in the US? I would argue there is. If you are a generalist in any enterprise, you have the capacity to set the conversation both in your industry and in the wider culture that most specialist and "ditch" organizations do not. Right now, it's Roman Catholics and (Reformed) evangelical megachurch leaders (most of them non-denominational) who are setting the conversation on many issues related to Christianity in this country, and relatively unopposed, because there is no third generalist body in play to help set that conversation effectively on an ongoing basis. People wonder why there is so little Wesleyan theology getting any press in the wider culture, or why there is so little Wesleyan theology represented in the CCLI Top 100-- this is a big part of why. 

Further, while specialists may do particular good in their own specialties, generalists can be part of creating a platform where many more good things can happen, including the good things specialists want to accomplish.

I think we can all agree there is great potential for missional good that can come out of the return of a third player to what, for the past three or four decades at least, has become, too often,  an "echo chamber" dyad on the religious and political "right."

Realistically, the only way The UMC is likely to regain generalist status in the US at this time would be to help broker
massive mergers with other denominations with whom we may already share many things in common. Such a merger would have to be a true merger, meaning many specialties of the various denominations in it , including our own, may need to be de-emphasized as essentials for the sake of the whole functioning as a coherent and effective generalist church. What won't work for the long haul (as the evangelical/megachurch coalition has discovered in its increasing divisions and schisms in the past decade) would be a "coalition" or "federation" model of governance or identity. As Sheth and Sisodia's work indicates,  generalists who try to grow by managing multiple specialists, or function primarily as a "collective of specialists subsidiaries," tend to fail (See their paper, p. 13, #11).

Candidates for such a massive merger with The UMC might include AME, AME Zion, CME, ELCA (we are already in full communion with all of these), The Episcopal Church, PCUSA, Disciples of Christ, UCC and possibly American Baptists USA to put the "Uniting America Church" (or whatever this merged entity might be called) just over the top (numerically) into generalist territory. Already, The United Methodist Publishing House serves as the primary or significant distributor for all of the non-Methodist denominations listed above, so we do have within the UMC family an example of one such "conglomerate."

We'll talk about challenges inherent in this approach a bit later. But for now, it's enough to say this could be desirable, doable, and maybe even doable fairly quickly, if we all put our minds to it because we were committed, all of us, to being part of a single generalist rather than multiple specialist denominations in the US.

Embrace and Fully Play to the Strengths of Our Specialist Status

If a key missional advantage of a generalist church is setting the conversation or platforms for action across the US, the key missional advantage of the effective specialist church or denomination is its ability to deliver on its specialty like no other specialist or generalist can begin to do.  

Ecumenists over the past 20-30 years have been bemoaning what appears to be a reduction in ecumenism and ecumenical interest  in favor of greater emphasis on denominational, local or congregational distinctives and work.

This has in fact been happening. It's why the National Council of Churches has teetered on the edge (or over the edge) of bankruptcy for some time. It's why in many states and larger cities, regional "church councils" have pretty well vanished or been repurposed into non-profits focusing on justice issues rather than embodying church unity. It's part of why attempts at "church union" among Protestants in the US have been replaced by the more modest goal of mutual recognition or full communion, and even these have little real effect. It's also why ministerial associations, as meetings of clergy across denominations, seem to retain some interest in some places, but no longer have the organizational or public institutional capacity they once did. They're often more about peer support than  missional strategy or shared public witness across institutions. 

Sheth and Sisodia might call this decline of ecumenism the predictable result of specialists acting like the specialists they actually are.  Indeed, it may be a sign of health and strength in specialists. As they point out, specialists tend to improve their market share the most within their specialty when they focus on delivering that specialty with excellence, even if it does not generate an overall increase in market share for their sector as a whole. (See their paper, p. 12, #6). In other words, denominations or congregations that "go deep" on the things they do best rather than focus on "commonalities" with others may grow themselves, even if the overall market for Protestant denominations (or religion in general!) is declining. Is this not what we see in the actual stability or growth in groups like Seventh Day Adventists in the US on the one hand, and the relative growth (or at least less rapid decline) of well-led megachurches on the other?

As we've seen, though, United Methodists in both our structures and our leadership culture still often (not always!) tend to reflect the generalist status we could no longer claim after the 1970s rather than specialist status in which we find ourselves here and now.

So for a specialist future to be a hopeful one for us, we need both to reorganize our structures and re-align our thinking, talking and acting so we respond, plan, sound, look and feel like the specialists we actually are in the US market.

Re: Structures 

Specialists who try to use generalist organizational structures are kind of like David trying to wear Saul's armor.

Generalist structures actually impede
what specialists can do.

Specialists who thrive are structured to deliver their specialty better than anyone else,  and nothing else.  

This is not about "streamlining" per se. Streamlining as it typically proceeds is a technical solution to what is at its core an adaptive challenge. It assumes our core problem is bloat and duplication, and that if we could reduce those, everything would get better. Streamlining is primarily an exercise in optimization. But optimization assumes the system itself is basically aligned with both the mission and the capacity of the organization. Both matter. We may be doing a better job of calling our existing (generalist) structures into alignment with our mission. But since we no longer have the capacity to function as a generalist church, there's still a significant mismatch relative to capacity. Specialist structures do not attempt do all things for all people. They do a limited number of things, completely and solely driven by their mission and their capacity, and with unmatched excellence.

Streamlining as a technical solution cannot help us. In fact, it could hurt us mightily. That's because we'd still be operating on the wrong generalist assumptions about the kind of structure we need, but now expecting even fewer people to help us deliver on our specialty.

So forget streamlining as any sort of helpful way forward. It's a holding pattern at best. 

What we need to become an effective specialist organization is a bottom to top reorganization that would give us the capacity to live out what we say we're up to-- making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in each market region where we find ourselves or choose to start new work.

It's mission first. Organization and structure are there to serve mission.  Our current, or even our past organization models from "golden days" of growth can likely give us almost no helpful guidance for what must be done now and next.

And that's why we must address how we think, talk and act as a denomination.

Re: Thinking, Talking and Acting 

Remember, we're not just dealing with organizations that make generalist assumptions and require generalist status to be sustainable. More importantly, our whole culture, including our leadership culture in most of our local congregations up through the annual conferences, agencies and council of bishops, is still thoroughly steeped in generalist assumptions.

We could change the structures relatively rapidly. But without also reorienting our leadership cultures toward our specialist status, we will have only set ourselves up for long-term conflict and further decline.

 That's why our first adaptive challenge is not to change structures. It is to imagine, learn how to speak about and embody what a United Methodist specialist culture would sound, feel and look like, bottom to top.

Of course, I would advocate that such a distinctly United Methodist specialist culture would embrace, bottom to top, something along the lines of the "networked" ecclesiology with which the Wesleys started out-- with congregations doing what congregations as a public format of Christian community can do, in network with discipling groups that are as accountably focused on entire sanctification as were the early Methodist class meetings and bands.

To be sure, we're going to have to find, modify or create the discipling groups, as they're generally not part of our congregational organization and culture. As I've noted many times on this blog, discipling groups were also not a significant part of 18th century congregations in England or America, nor are they likely to be found with much frequency or effectiveness in most US congregations today. 

Such a vibrant, robust set of vital congregations networked with loving and demanding discipling groups would be a uniquely Wesleyan charism United Methodists could connect with, develop and deploy in ways no one else could at this point.  Pursuing this networked ecclesiology, as early Methodism had done, would truly mark us as a specialist denomination fixed on gathering people for public worship and other corporate activities AND discipling people in small groups toward entire holiness.

And such a vibrant, robust set of vital congregations networked with discipling groups could give fullest expression of the General Rules: abstaining from sinful and harmful activities (Rule 1), fully engaging in holy, good and life-giving actions (Rule 2) and doing so with accountable small groups and the whole congregation (Rule 3).

At least I would strongly suggest this "networked ecclesiology" approach as starting place-- since this kind of approach fits well with the parts and pieces we have, or might assemble, already at hand.  

The Costs of the Possible Hopeful Futures

As for those organizations Sheth and Sisodia classify as "in the ditch," there are still no easy ways forward for United Methodists. Not choosing ensures continuing and likely irreversible organizational decline.  We can still choose a new way to embody our lives together, either as generalists or as specialists, but not one trying to run on the structure, self-understanding, or capacity of the other. All real choices for a viable future with hope are dramatically different than our current realities, not "derivatives with a twist." 

Some Costs of Massive Mergers

If we were to head down the Massive Mergers route toward renewed generalist status, we would in effect have to submerge much of our Methodist/EUB identities into some larger mainline Protestant pool. All other partners would need to do this with theirs, as well. It's time for conversation with the United Church of Canada, the Uniting Church in Australia, and the Church of South India how these kinds of challenges of identity have worked, and not worked, for each of them, and learning from their experiences, positive and negative, what we might do to generate more effective outcomes in any such merger we might undertake in the US.

We would also likely have to massively reduce the number of congregations in all denominations involved to create combined congregations of sufficient size and capacity to be viable generalist contenders with our Roman Catholic and mega-church competition currently in the 1 and 2 positions.  

So the costs of becoming viable generalists may be very steep, including significant losses both of distinctive denominational identities and of many congregations as separate entities.

We will need to discern whether such costs, even if they do return a lasting and sustainable generalist status, are worth the investment.

Some Costs of Intensive Specialization

A process now of intensively focusing The United Methodist Church on its mission, especially in a more specifically Wesleyan way and with a more networked ecclesiology, will come with significant immediate losses in terms of identity and congregations as well. Many United Methodists may prefer at least the illusion of "mainline" or "mainstream" cultural Christianity that The UMC and its predecessors have fostered for at least a century or more (I might argue, since as early as the North/South splits in the 1840s) to the much more openly evangelistic, holiness-oriented emphases that characterized the Methodism of the Wesleys and earlier American Methodist-related churches (both the United Brethren and  Evangelical Association). While our congregations in such a realignment may remain truly open and welcoming of all, there may also be such a strong expectation of participation in accountable discipling groups in order to become "professing members" that our zeal for holiness may be offputting to some, if not many. For those who seek it, of course, it would be as for our ancestors, truly a Godsend.

We would also still have to face facts about whether the congregations we have in place actually have the capacity to function as congregations, much less as those who can deliver the "brand promise" of both rich and inclusive congregational life and reliable and accountable connections to intense formation in holy living. Ineffective "branch offices" are even more damaging to specialist organizations than to generalist ones. We may need to close or dramatically reorganize perhaps 1/3 or more of our existing congregations (Bishop Willimon is right about this!), plus effectively start many more, all tightly connected to our brand identity and promise of discipling people in the way of Jesus toward such holiness of heart and life that they are living witnesses and participants in God's transformation of the world.

The same questions about "return on investment" apply. There are significant up front costs in both identity and the number of our congregations either way.

The question before us is which identity we wish to pursue going forward. Shall it be a generalist Protestant identity that helps set the national conversation and platform for ministry by ourselves and specialist denominations in the US, or shall it be a thorough embrace of the heritage of Wesley, Otterbein, Albrecht and Boehm? To choose neither, or attempt to hybridize them, is only to ensure our continuing denial of our status and betrayal of the opportunity to embrace some viable way forward. 

Continuing the Conversation

So, what do you think of all of this?


1) To what degree do you believe the Rule of Three may apply to denominations and congregations in the US or on a global scale?

2) How can denominations and their congregations be faithful as generalists? How can they be faithful as specialists? What does faithfulness look like for them when they're "in the ditch?"

3) How heavily should United Methodists invest in either

a) perpetuating more or less their current "generalist" structures and leadership culture  and using them to help leverage a massive merger that could lead to a truly generalist Protestant church in the US?


b) clarifying our specialist role, and creating a new set of structures and new ways to talk and behave so we embody and deliver our "specialist brand promise" as effectively and reliably as possible?

4) What other questions or issues do you want to raise?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

US Church Markets and "The Rule of Three" Part I: Past and Present

Public domain.
Don't you just hate it when blog posts tell you to go read or look at an entirely different article, and then come back to relate it to the current one?

Sometimes I do.

Well, this is another one of those posts.

And what I'm going to ask you to go read may seem like a really odd thing when what I'm talking about is churches.

It's a technology article on ZDNet. And worse, it's a technology article that's about applying the insights of yet another resource (in this case a global market analysis book) to describe what has happened, is happening, and likely will happen in the smartphone industry.

So what can an article smartphones based on a book about status in global markets possibly have to say to us in the church?

Well-- go read it.  And especially pay attention to the big graph near the middle. And then leave that window open-- because you'll want to refer to that article as I'm trying to see how it might apply to vital congregations and other kinds of ministries (including missional groups and discipling groups) in local areas.


The Rule of Three

Jagdish Sheth and Raj Sisodia describe how a wide variety of competitors within about 200 different markets, globally, have typically sorted themselves out in terms of market share in their book,  The Rule of Three. They also have placed an much briefer article describing these processes on Dr. Sheth's website. Pages 7-9 of that article will give you their basic summary, and another graphic for picturing this.

In even simpler form than they have put it, all kinds of markets first tend to divide between what they call "generalists" and "specialists." On the "generalist" side, in any given market, exactly three companies will tend to dominate over time. Dominate means to have at least a 10% market share. Specialists who can last (if they capitalize on their specialist status, and don't try to play as if they were generalists) have 1-5% market share. Those with a share between 5% and 10% tend to fall into what Sheth and Sisodia call "the ditch." They flounder unless they can find some way to move or move back into either the top 3 or rebrand themselves as specialists.  This is because in this range they tend lack both the scale of generalists and the unique and loyal (or locked-in) customer base of specialists. It's in this range they're in greatest danger of going out of business entirely.

The Rise of United Methodists and The Rule of Three

From roughly the mid-19th century until through WW I, Methodists, Baptists (the previous two when you combine northern and southern branches) and Roman Catholics constituted the "big three" on the US religious landscape. There were lots of other specialists, but these three continued to capture at least 10% market share (assuming Roman Catholic and Protestant markets did not cross over substantially), nationwide, while others did not. To be sure, there were strong regional variations. Lutherans were the dominant Protestant bodies in much of the upper Midwest (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota) where large numbers of German and Scandinavian immigrants had settled. Congregationalists remained potent in the Northeast. And in places with large Dutch, Swiss or Scottish immigrant populations, a variety of Calvinist groups could easily dominate, and did. There are always variations on smaller scales. But on the macro scale, the nation as a whole, it was clearly Methodists, Baptists and Roman Catholics.

Methodists in the US, however, had begun a significant slide out of the top three at least by the end of WW II,  and in effect were teetering with if not actually yet "in the ditch" by that time, despite the mergers of Northern, Southern and Methodist Protestant churches in the 1930s. The creation of The United Methodist Church by the union of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, effectively reversed that outcome, putting us just back over the between ditch and generalists, and making The UMC the largest Protestant  denomination with the greatest scale and the biggest potential Protestant market share at the time.

Where We Are Now

We all know what's happened to nearly all religious groups in the US, and especially Christian groups, since that time. Today, among Christians in the US at least, only Roman Catholics as a coherent group remain clearly in the top three (a 10 % market share or more). Non-denominational megachurches might be #2, if that can be said to be a group as such. Southern Baptists (though not the larger evangelical movement of which they are the largest single group) have slipped into the ditch (current market share just over 5%) and may be slowly heading toward specialist status. United Methodists, if we take 7.5 million as accurate for the US have moved through the ditch and are firmly ensconced on the "specialist" side, with a relative market share around 2%.

Now, I'm not making any value judgments at all about why these declines have occurred. From an organizational perspective, focusing a lot of energy, and especially blame, on how or why these shifts occurred diverts energy and attention from where it could be far more fruitfully focused-- leveraging the position we now have to remain competitive in the marketplace in which we now find ourselves.

That position is as a mid-sized specialist, not as a generalist.

Our perhaps unique challenge, one Southern Baptists are on the brink of facing, is that our basic structures for "doing church" and our basic attitudes about "being church," endemic in most of our current top level leaders, were formed at a time when United Methodists were generalists. We quit being generalists, in fact, at least by the 1980s. And we took neither of the hard paths at that time Sheth and Sisodia recommend to regain generalist status (either grow rapidly by conversions or through mergers and acquisitions, or divest massively in our generalist structures and assumptions and focus on recreating ourselves organizationally, behaviorally and attitudinally in a clear specialist role). 

So this is where we are. We are, in actual terms, a specialist Christian denomination in the US that continues to be structured, behave, and believe itself to be a generalist one.

Stay tuned for part 2-- Possible Futures