A UM Missional Future: Can We Learn from Large Churches?

Part 9 of 21...

Dr. Weems asks:

Can we learn from a cohort of large churches that have for thirty years been reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people?

To substantiate the question, Dr Weems notes the following statistics:

Churches with average worship attendance of 500 or more make up 1% of United Methodist churches in the U.S. In 1975 (when the age of United Methodists became older than the national population), these churches represented about 9 percent of membership, attendance, and professions of faith. Today these churches represent

20% of membership

20% of attendance
24% of professions of faith
25% of youth
26% of children
29% of people of color

To answer the question most briefly, of course we can learn from the ministry and effectiveness of larger churches. The question that must then be asked is "What can we learn from these churches that helps us become more missional rather than merely attractional?"

Based on those statistics alone, the answer is nearly nothing. None of these measurements is a direct indicator of congregations being in any mission other than adding people to worship attendance or church rolls. There is nothing there that tells us directly whether or to what degree the people in attendance or on the rolls are themselves DOING anything missionally. What is the spiritual impact, other than attendance? What is the community impact where these churches and their participants are located?

Put another way, these data represent a minimal degree of INSTITUTIONAL effectiveness, but not necessarily missional effectiveness.

More to the point, perhaps, these data may actually say little more than that big churches have more people in them of all types than smaller congregations do.

The question remains what those people are actually doing in the life of the world to partner with and accomplish God's mission where they are.

What we also know is that a number of very large churches are doing a major reassessment of their ministries right now, in part because they have discovered that though their attendance figures remain very large in worship and their programming, the rate of discipleship occurring among these people is actually very low. In short, people are coming, getting what they want out of the church, but not growing all that much in their lives personally or in their actual commitment to engaging in God's mission in the world. Consumerism, rampant everywhere in our culture in the US, may be a substantially bigger factor driving large participation than commitment to the mission of God in Jesus Christ.

So can we learn from large churches? Yes, we can. But what we need to learn is about instances where they, or churches of any size, are being effective missionally, not just institutionally. Getting bigger or even more diverse is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness to or growth in God's mission, especially not in the United States. We need to know what percentage of their participants are active in DOING mission in practical, hands-on ways, not just how much money they give for others to do it, and the factors in the life of those congregations that help to encourage that kind of outcome. We need to know what percentage of people are growing in their commitment to Christ, as measured by the General Rules (in our tradition), and the factors in their life as a congregation that contribute to such growth. We need to know not just about different ethnicities being part of a congregation, but also, and perhaps more significantly, different socio-economic levels, and the factors that contribute to that. We need to know not just how many youth are attending events, but how many of them are active and growing in faith and mission as well.

If we just look to large churches, because we view them as signs of institutional success, we will not be identifying enough of the right factors for ANY current size of a congregation for missional effectiveness.

A starting place to get a handle on some of these issues, not only within the UMC but across a variety of denominations in the US, is the links page on congregational studies at Hartford Seminary, one of the leading centers for congregational studies in the world. The most extensive single study to date is the US Congregations Study.

Go look around there, and see what you learn. Some of what comes out may surprise you.

But remember, it's a starting place. And it still tends to measure effectiveness as institutional growth more than necessarily indicators of missional effectiveness (spiritual impression and community impact), though some indicators of the latter two can be found there as well.

Consider this a call to missional research, then. Anyone needing to do a major dissertation or wanting to start an important national or international project in missional congregational/group/network effectiveness, here's your topic!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards