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Numbers reveal more than half conference's churches in decline (Feb. 12, 2004)

Numbers reveal more than half conference's churches in decline (Feb. 12, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Numbers reveal more than half conference's churches in decline

Feb. 12, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0021}

Leaders say declining churches can reclaim the Great Commission and revitalize.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND - The numbers don't lie.

Data shows nearly 90 percent of Florida Conference churches and missions that submitted charge conference surveys asking questions to determine each individual church's health were categorized as plateaued or declining.

Approximately 537 of the conference's 740 churches, new church starts and missions had submitted the surveys as of the end of January, according to the Rev. Kendall Taylor, director of the Office of Congregational Transformation (OCT).

"The numbers are terribly disappointing," Taylor said, adding he had predicted the survey figures would hover around the 70 percent mark and was surprised they were higher.

"It means these churches are ineffective at making disciples," he said. "It means they are primarily taking care of their members. The numbers bore that out. It can't be denied."

OCT was established during the 2002 Florida Annual Conference Event to expand on the conference's former Operation Evangelization Ministry. Its goal is to breathe new life into maintaining and dying churches using a church revitalization process called Natural Church Development (NCD).

In 2003 annual conference delegates approved classifying churches using five categories: beginning, transforming, reproducing, maintaining and dying. The data gathered through the surveys was based on those categories. Delegates to the 2003 annual event also approved applying the eight characteristics of healthy churches identified in the NCD literature to the conference's churches, "to help the conference's churches find their way forward," according to Taylor.

Taylor said declining churches usually have not embraced Matthew 28:19-20 which says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

"We have given lip service to this for a long time," Taylor said. "To turn these churches around will take the moving of the Holy Spirit. These churches need to be grabbed by the Holy Spirit."

It's not the end for the declining churches, however, according to Taylor. He said as long as they are willing to entertain the idea of doing things differently, using NCD, they can rekindle the flame in their ministry. "The heart of that is embracing the Great Commission with passion," he said.

NCD is designed to help churches reach their potential. Churches gauge their health through a 91-question survey that reveals churches' strengths and weaknesses. Taylor said "a light goes on in the eyes of people" when he talks about churches making changes to better fulfill their mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ.

Coaches will help churches navigate through the revitalization process, according to Taylor, but he said they will not be automatically dispatched to ailing churches. He said a church will have to ask for a coach to receive one.

Taylor says churches in need of help have not intentionally arrived at the declining status. Many are happy and believe things are fine when they are not, and therein lies the problem, he said.

"In the beginning when a church is starting, the minister has no members. He/she must build the congregation," Taylor said. "The growing church intuitively connects to the community-the members get to know the community to interest people in joining. When the church has grown sufficiently large to provide the staff and programming the members expect often the impetus and passion for reaching new people for Jesus wanes. Connecting to their community is not as important and urgent as it was when they were small. A plateau has been reached."

Taylor said the church gradually turns inward and starts focusing on itself "quite without conscious awareness," with the majority of its people and monetary resources spent on taking care of people already in the church.

"This describes the process of moving from transforming to maintaining," Taylor said. "If the process goes on unchecked the congregation will turn more and more inward, cutting off the avenues by which new members, ideas and passion enter congregational life. There no longer is passion to see people restored to wholeness through a relationship with Jesus."

The Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of the Florida Conference Council on Ministries' Missions Ministry, predicts churches that don't make missions and reaching out to their community a priority will reach the point of no return and die.

"We are a connectional church. It's not a phrase we use to raise money," he said. "Our connectionalism is an integral part of who we are. The church must grow or it will die."

Rankin said OCT's data on declining churches is evidence those churches are not fulfilling their missionary call.

"I say that not as a criticism, but as a reality," Rankin said. "The solution for turning churches around is so reachable. It has very little to do with money. It has everything to do with relationships and a passion for reaching people for Christ, locally and globally."

Once a church has reaffirmed its mission and transformed itself into a vital and vibrant entity, the process must not end, according to Taylor. He said churches cannot transform themselves once and be "fixed."

"Transformation is a normal, ongoing state of a healthy church," he said. "It's an active process that never stops."


This article relates to Congregational Transformation and Missions.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.