Analysis shows conference churches making strides



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Analysis shows conference churches making strides

By Tita Parham | Dec. 22, 2008 {0957}

NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles about churches that have experienced growth in professions of faith and average worship attendance, measures of two of the five practices of The Methodist Way.

LAKELAND — When asked to measure how their churches are doing in specific categories, like professions of faith or worship attendance, invariably there are some groans among church leaders and pastors.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Florida Conference Office of Congregational Transformation, shares the results of an analysis of churches based on average worship attendance and professions of faith at the 2008 Florida Annual Conference in June. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-1073.

It was no different at a special convocation of Florida Conference clergy called in October by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker. The bishop outlined what he considers the mission of the conference for the next quadrennium, his last term as bishop of the conference after being reassigned to the Florida Area in July. That mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and it’s being embraced by all conferences in the denomination at the urging of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church.

Whitaker and conference leaders also unveiled a new Web site churches will begin using as early as Jan. 1 if they choose — it becomes mandatory July 1 — to track their progress in living the five practices of The Methodist Way, the Wesleyan model of making disciples.

Not surprisingly, a few qualms about using the new tool were expressed, but conference leaders were quick to note a number of practices are already being measured. And an analysis of all Florida Conference churches earlier this year showed more than a few are making progress, despite denominational declines.

Of the conference’s 700-plus churches and missions, 229 ranked in the top 10 percent in one or more of six categories considered: highest number of professions of faith and average worship attendance in 2007, the greatest increase in both categories between 2006 and 2007, and the greatest percent change in both between the two years.

Churches of all sizes were represented, with 17 experiencing growth in more than one category and two — Aloma United Methodist Church in Winter Park and Harvest United Methodist Church in Bradenton — ranking in all six.

“There are congregations in every district that are knocking the ball out of the park,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of congregational transformation for the conference. His office conducted the analysis and sent letters to the top-ranking churches, informing them of the results.

“These churches are bucking the general flow (of decline denominationwide),” Stiggins said. “The world is changing — culturally, demographically — and it’s harder to do church well, but there are churches around the conference that have figured out how to reach people.”

Stiggins shared the results of the analysis at the Florida Annual Conference in June. He said it’s worth looking at the statistics and making note of the churches in the top 10 percent “because they give us hope.” He said it shows churches change is possible.

As a church, we are beginning to ask the important, defining questions of ‘who are we and what is God calling us to do?’ ”

Florida Conference Pastor

“There are no perfect churches, but they’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “The point is they’re doing it.”

Quantifying the five practices is also scriptural, Stiggins said, pointing to John 15 and the parable of the talents. The ultimate goal, he said, is to measure a church’s fruitfulness, with the practices considered missional vital signs.

Average worship attendance, which was considered in this year’s analysis, is a measure of a church’s progress toward providing passionate worship, the first of the five practices. Professions or reaffirmations of faith are a measure of a church’s radical hospitality, the second practice. The new Web site will also look at intentional discipling, the third practice, using the percentage of worshippers involved in weekly face-to-face discipleship or small groups as a measure of that practice. The measure for salty service, the fourth practice, will be the percentage of worshippers who say they have been involved in ministries of mercy, justice and earth care outside the church. And the final practice, extravagant generosity, will be measured by looking at the average amount given per worshipper on a weekly basis.

No ‘formula’ for fruitfulness

Stiggins said feedback from the churches showed many factors contributed to their growth.

“It’s a constellation of things that work together,” he said. “One has a phenomenal daycare; another has adopted a girls basketball team. There’s not one thing you can do. There has to be some energy in worship … people have to be welcoming. It’s the five practices.”

The results also contradict perceptions about factors considered barriers to growth, such as declining or changing neighborhoods. Stiggins said there are examples of churches in those situations that are growing.

Another misconception is that a large membership guarantees growth. Stiggins says large churches are actually more fragile; it’s the smaller congregations that are more solid.

“A large church is more like a congregation of congregations,” he said. “Large churches often experience a flux in average worship attendance when there’s a change in pastor, change in community, cultural factors … pulling out key elements people related to, like a staff person.”

Stiggins also says “you can’t take for granted new churches have it easy” just because they are in a growing neighborhood or have a younger membership. They don’t all grow beyond the denominational average, he said.

The Rev. Mont Duncan, director of the conference’s new church development office, agrees. 
“Starting something from just a vision requires creating momentum and gathering a critical mass to reach out into the community,” he said. “Both of these take time, effort and planning.”

Several factors do benefit new congregations, Stiggins said. One is clarity about the church’s mission and the need to connect with people in the community in order to make disciples. The second, he said, is “a lack of emotional ties to the strategies and styles of the past, resulting in an experimental freedom about trying whatever works as they seek to make disciples in their community.” 

The Rev. Mont Duncan, director of the Florida Conference New Church Development office, reports to members at the 2007 Florida Annual Conference that 56 percent of the more than 80 churches launched in the conference since 1995 were racial, ethnic or language new starts. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-1074.

Duncan said new churches tend to be more effective in reaching people who have never been part of a faith community, those who have become inactive for a variety of reasons and “people who are far from God.” 

“They (new churches) usually start with a strong evangelism outreach ministry, and they have developed an intentional disciple-making plan as part of their planned ministry,” he said. “They are strong in small groups, which not only builds community, but is an excellent tool for disciple-making.

Duncan also said new churches tend to be more risk-taking than older congregations, and they are “willing to lose a few in order to gain more followers of Jesus.”

Both Stiggins and Duncan say the denomination’s renewed emphasis on starting new churches and revitalizing existing ones will help stem the overall decline of the denomination. By 2012, the denomination plans to launch 650 new congregations that would then commit to beginning new churches within their first 10 years, eventually increasing denominational numbers by millions within 30 years, according to reports from United Methodist News Service.

The Florida Conference is leading the way in those efforts. During the last decade the conference launched 85 new churches, including seven in the past year, according to Duncan, who estimates the average number of new church starts among U.S. conferences is three to four a year. Fifteen of the total number the conference has launched have closed.

Money is also not the answer when it comes to church transformation, Stiggins said. Grants may help churches get through an immediate crisis, he said, “but money doesn’t change them in the long run.”

Pastors and members from the churches in the top 10 percent cited a number of factors they believe contributed to their growth, including having strong hospitality and prayer ministries, a vision all members embrace, dedicated pastoral and staff leadership, and a strong focus on missions, children and youth.

“As a church, we are beginning to ask the important, defining questions of ‘who are we and what is God calling us to do?’ ” one pastor said. Another said “getting back to the basics of ministry” has made the difference.

The new Web site to track progress in achieving the five practices of The Methodist Way will be accessible through a button called “Missional Vital Signs” on both the Congregational Transformation section of the Florida Conference Web site (http://www.flumc.org) and on the home page of the conference site.

A report on the bishop’s convocation for clergy held in October is available at http://www.flumc2.org/FCNN/articles/000052/005201.htm.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.




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