Depopulation, Natural Decrease and the Growing the Church in the USA, Part 2

Social network diagram. Public Domain.
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 Your Networks 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.

On 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 "my brand."

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 here. 

As 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 some congregation, very likely mine, plus some 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.

If 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.

How do you see it?