Investing Our Way to Growth?

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Don House believes if 998 UMC congregations in the USA with 125 or more average attenders invested a total of about $120 million/year between now and 2021 in growth strategies such as  adding staff, enhancing core ministries and adding strategic new ministries, the growth these congregations alone would generate in worship attendance would reverse the denomination's overall decline in atttendance and giving in the US by that time.

And he has some significant statistical analysis to support this claim.

Without vetting his stats, let me say I think he may be right.

As I've often discussed on this blog, one of the core competencies of any congregation is its reliability as an institutional player. And a significant driver of that reliability is the an institution's fiscal and organizational capacity. If an organization invests in its fiscal and organizational capacity, at least on this factor, it will increase its vitality and effectiveness.

Let me suggest this may be a strategic way to increase other factors of congregational competence as well.

Increase investments in the best worship leadership and technologies for worship you can find, and you are likely to see improvements in worship, which may very well translate to increases in attendance.

Increase investments in key processes to ensure solid basic theological formation, and, yes, you should expect to see increased performance there, too.

And increase investments in caring ministries, and as every church growth advisor since Lyle Schaller has been saying for decades, you will see significant uptick in all other areas of the church's life.

So yes, it is quite possible, at least in principle, for congregations that already have the capacity to function as reliable institutions (and 125 average worship is clearly in that ballpark, while much below 75 is not) to spend their way to growth-- even significant growth-- in every area of a congregation's life that matters to its core competencies. Unless something terrible happens (economic collapse, significant clergy or staff crises or professional lapses, and the like), this seems like a pretty sure bet-- in principle.

This really could work-- if the church thinks its primary role is to increase attendance and giving, which are, after all, two of the significant indicators of congregational vitality coming out of the Call to Action processes of the previous quadrennium and still in play in the Vital Congregations work and the dashboards in play in many annual conferences.

Seriously, I believe this is worth further investigation and probably action. I think it is, in principle, one viable strategy toward increasing the number of "high vital" congregations in the UMC in the USA, which is the "adaptive challenge" that has been placed before us.

We can buy our way to vitality. We can invest our way to growth.

On these terms.

This, of course, begs other questions. Is vitality as measured primarily by the end of declines in worship attendance and giving across the denomination in the USA the kind of vitality that actually accomplishes the stated mission of The United Methodist Church: "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world"?

Here's reality. We can do exactly what Don House suggests, and probably get the results he's describing, and perhaps even better results than that-- Don tends to be conservative in his estimates in my experience of his work. (That's one of the many things I like about him!).  It will likely work if we work it.

But notice what's missing. 




The focus in this investment plan is almost completely completely on making the institution more stable and viable, doing more or less what it does now, except for these 998 churches that will be doing some substantial extra spending and work to generate these outcomes.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it.

Hear me. I think we really ought to consider doing what Don House recommends. I don't see much of a downside. And I see lots of potential upside, perhaps even more than his spreadsheets see.

I think we really would go a very long way toward increasing the number of highly vital United Methodist congregations in the US if we were to ask these 988 congregations to invest a little over $120,000/year on average for the next 8 years. We probably ought to do that. It makes sense.

Just like I think if we can provide treated bed nets and see a 50% reduction in malaria deaths worldwide, we ought to provide bed nets- as we have, and have seen exactly that result.

It's just that a 50% reduction is not elimination. Not by a long shot.

And it's just that our Lord call his disciples and our Church to do something far more radical than ensure the stability of their congregations and other ecclesial systems. 

Discipling people in the way of Jesus may or may not lead to increased vitality of local congregations in terms of attendance or giving. It could actually lead to a net per capita decline in giving as disciples of Jesus form more relationships with persons who may be in far less stead to invest much, if anything, financially in local congregations. And we may also be relating to many more people whose work schedules preclude regular attendance no matter when we were to schedule worship services with them in mind.

So discipling may not be the best way to generate those kinds of outcomes for our congregations. The kinds of investments by the kinds of congregations Don House describes may very well do this far, far better.

But what remains is our call to discipleship, and to disciple others in Jesus way, seeking God's kingdom and righteousness above all.

Let us continue to focus our energies, our prayers, and our lives on this calling-- a calling to discipleship and discipling-- while not neglecting the advice of our brother economist.