Nurturing Vital Congregations
The Methodist movement has a deep, rich and complicated history in the Pacific Northwest. The earliest missionaries to the region found the people here unusually resistant to their missionary efforts. Despite the fact that early Methodists were instrumental in launching the civil institutions in the region, establishing religion among the folks who settled here was a challenge.
The difficulties of the mission field where we live were submerged during the great immigrations to the West that occurred after World War II. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the great middle class generation that created the baby boom moved from the Midwest to our region in large numbers. These were church-going people – more church-oriented than most others in our history. Most of us can remember when schools and businesses reserved Sundays and Wednesday nights for church activities (not that everyone used them for that purpose).
By the 1980s, a host of factors – sports, entertainment, extracurricular organizations – resulted in a significant decline in the cultural “time reserve” once protected for religion. Some less-visible factors (but even more disruptive) were the rise of the multiple-job household, longer commute times, decreased trust in institutions (stemming from scandals that receive massive public attention) and the increasing secularization of the culture.
So, as we all know in our bones, most of our existing churches look back to an earlier era as their “best days.” Some of our congregations have experienced nearly 60 years of a steady decline in the number of people regularly participating in their core activities (worship, Sunday school and fellowship groups).
The bad news is that we have to ask if our congregations have a future. The good news is that over 80% of the people in our region believe in God, yet most of those people have no faith community to help them cultivate a relationship with God and transform the world. Therefore, while we struggle without missional strategies, we are clearly in a time and place where the field is, as Jesus said, “ripe for the harvest.”
“We are clearly in a time and place where the field is, as Jesus said, ‘ripe for the harvest.’”
In our work with congregations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska, we repeatedly have found people who want their church to reach their neighbors with the Good News. These people are often sacrificially generous with the time they spend on church. We know that active United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest exceed their brothers and sisters nationally in financial giving per person. So, if we want to reach our neighbors and we are devoting our time and money to accomplish that, why isn’t it working better?
The answer is simple and very, very challenging. It is because “the way we do church” was designed for a different world than the one we live in. We love well and serve well, but we don’t know what to do. We must relearn how to be church in a way that addresses the communities where we live.
No one really quite knows what the church that will extend the Methodist movement will look like into the coming millennium. However, there are congregations that have bucked the trend of decline and are actually growing. We do know that the places where our movement is vital have some things in common:
- They are theologically Wesleyan.
- They worship and celebrate the sacraments frequently.
- They have effective systems for adult discipling.
- They teach and practice biblical stewardship.
- They are missional and actively bless the community where they exist.
- They receive new members.
- They reflect the diversity of the community in which they exist.
- They generate the resources necessary (e.g., leadership, funding and facilities) to sustain themselves and to bless others.
- They are connected and accountable in The United Methodist Church.