In the first part of this post, we looked at the reality (not just the hype) of the increase of "natural decrease" in a growing number of US Counties, as well as those areas experiencing the most rapid population growth (urban areas of Texas, Florida and the Mountain West), and suggested possible strategies for the UMC and other denominations to deal with these realities appropriately.
Demographic trends on this level do make a difference in terms of the kinds of "macro-strategy" denominations, judicatories and regional groupings of congregations (across denominational lines) should seek to deploy. What I want to explore here has much more to do with the grassroots, with how disciples invite and help others become disciples, regardless of larger demographic trends.
The Most Basic Strategy: Inviting and Connecting People to YourNetworks Wherever You Are Except
for truly compelling doctrinal issues such as the Trinity, or the
resurrection of Jesus or the doctrine of sanctification, are there any sufficiently Christian reasons to try to gain additional participants for our own
congregations in particular rather than simply be the best witnesses to
the kingdom of God, disciples of Jesus, and pursuers of perfect love
with one another that we can be in our daily lives wherever we are sent
or find ourselves?
I can think of one, sort of. If I'm inviting
you to consider becoming a disciple of Jesus, that invitation can't be
generic. It is (and should be) an invitation to become part of the network
I'm part of, the communities and individuals with whom I most
concretely live out discipleship to Jesus and engage in mission in his
name. That's because discipleship and the Christian life aren't
generic. Discipleship and the Christian life are incarnational,
contextualized, lived, and inescapably social, embedded in the real,
daily interactions we have with each other, with fellow creatures, with
God, and with the earth.
And in inviting you to be part of the network I'm part of, I'm very likely also inviting you to be part of the congregation I'm part of.
Very likely. Not definitely, but very likely.
the plus side, the congregation I'm part of is a significant part of
that Christian network in which I am being discipled, challenged,
supported, prayed for, and offering myself and my gifts. I meet with
these people for worship and learning at least once a week for several
hours. I'm in communication with some of them regularly, if not daily.
The congregation is like a hub in my overall network-- not the only hub,
but probably the largest and most richly organized one. Given the
importance of my congregation in my discipleship, I'd have to have some
good reasons not to invite you to participate in it with me and help you make lasting, mutually supportive connections with these folks.
On the other side, there may in fact be some good reasons I might not invite you to my congregation or even to my brand
of congregation. As valuable as it is for me, it may not have the best
social space for you. Maybe mine is better at supporting folks at a
different stage of life or discipleship than you are at this point.
Maybe there are things about you that would make it hard for you to be
as welcomed and supported as I would hope for you. Maybe there are
things about them that would make it difficult for you to be supported
by or supportive of them.
This is why I talk about the primary invitation being an invitation to and connection with the network of people with whom I do the Christian life rather than simply the congregation.
The actual social network of people with whom I do
the Christian life takes in more than just the people in the
congregation with whom I regularly worship, study, teach and engage in
mission, though it takes them in, too. At most points in my life, there
have been a significant number of folks outside "my congregation" and
even "my brand" (denomination) who have been as vital or more vital to
my spiritual life, and so equally or at times even more critical members
of my network, than perhaps a majority of folks within my particular
congregation. Some of these have been family members. Others have been
people I've met through school or work or extended social networks. Some
are not Christians, but whose lives call me to greater faithfulness to
the way of Jesus Christ. Almost all of them also are part of Christian
congregations, just not always the same one I'm in, and sometimes not
If I find my network can't receive, embrace and
actively help disciple you, that may mean I have some work to do within
my network, or that I need to add others to it who would be in a better
position to do so. In the meantime, if I know another network well
enough, or a trusted member of my network knows one, I might make a
referral. It will be a personal referral to help you make a real connection.
It will come out of the relationship I have with my network and with
you already. And it will come after personal conversations and prayer
with other folks along the way. I will not give you "a list of
restaurants" to choose from. I will arrange for personal interviews with
the chefs-- those people (mostly laity!) and communities (congregations
and discipling communities) to whom I'm entrusting your discipling from
I see it, inviting you to become part of my network or another trusted
network and working to connect you, personally, in this way, including somecongregation, very likely mine, plussome discipling community, and
introducing you to other individuals who are also critical in shaping
my walk with Christ is a more responsible and responsive way for me to
respond to the call to "disciple all peoples," regardless of local population trends,
than focusing my efforts on increasing the number of participants in my
congregation who may or may not be well-discipled in that context.
I am doing what I'm describing well, my sense is some congregations may
get larger and others smaller, but the people I introduce to my network
will be more likely to be discipled to Jesus Christ and grow in
holiness of heart and life as well or better than I have been.
And people who are well-discipled to Jesus Christ, and watching over one another in love, and with whatever
Christian congregation there may be in a given place that can be a
vital part or hub in that network for them, will find themselves in a
far better position to be used and useful in God's mission that is
transforming this world.