What's Tony Thinking

Boot Your Members/ Grow Your Church


A story about a Methodist Church in Minnesota was startling. It was about an attempt to revitalize a congregation that had been slowly dying for decades and had now reached a point that it was no longer sustainable.

Here’s the kicker. Current members were encouraged to go elsewhere, to leave. To leave “their” church.

The plan was to close the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota for a period during which planning for a new start/ new direction would be underway. In that interim, current members were encouraged to go elsewhere and to stay gone for one to two years, only returning after receiving permission from the pastor.

Sounds kind of “un-Christian” you say? Maybe . . . and maybe not.

As someone who has worked with a lot of churches on the topic of renewal, I can see the point of this strategy — as hard, even harsh, as it may sound.

When you have a church that is characterized by two words “shrinking” and “aging,” (words that apply to 80% of mainline Protestant churches in North America) and this aging and shrinking has been going on for sometime, perhaps decades, real change is unlikely to happen without pain. Check that. Real change will not happen without pain.

Quick . . . name a time when you did some real, true changing and growing. Chances are good that you were pushed to that by something painful, something breaking down, falling apart or not working.

In many steadily declining churches a culture has evolved that, however much members of the church may protest, has become inhospitable to new people and ideas. Often the same people have been playing the same roles for years, maybe decades. A kind of insularity sets in. The church becomes a club — although often the preferred term is usually a safer one, “family.” You hear people, with no small emotion, say “This church is my like a family to me,” or “This church is my family.”

That means something like, “We’ve been together forever. We all know each other other. It’s familiar. We’re comfortable here.” Any one of which would make a great epitaphs for a church’s tombstone. None, however, are a rallying cry for vitality.

To some extent, most, even all, churches suffer some of this syndrome. But when a church has been losing members and growing older for 20, 30 or 40 years — as is true for so many mainline Protestant churches in North America — it takes on a most insular form. Even though members will plead, “we’re super friendly,” “we’re open to everyone,” “we want to grow,” the system or culture are against it. The church is in a crouch. A defensive posture.

Essentially, in such a situation, the nature of the church qua church has been forgotten and replaced by “our family” (as I say a “safe” term — who after all can be against “the family?” Well, Jesus, for one. “Who are my sisters and brothers? Those who do the will of God are my sisters and my brothers.”) The church that is an actual church is not primarily focused on its members or on their comfort and satisfaction. Shocking, I know. It is focused on God and God’s work in the world. It is focused on making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ. It is focused on teaching and living a way of life inspired by Jesus.

It is not “my church” — no matter how many years you’ve been there. It is Christ’s church. We are not owners. We are guest and stewards. The vineyard is the Lord’s. We are but workers in the vineyard.

To be encouraged to go to another church shouldn’t be that big a problem if your focus is on Jesus Christ. It could actually be fun and an interesting experience. See what others are up to. Meet new people.

If, on the other hand, your focus is familiarity, comfort, being with people you know and doing things the way you’ve always done them — while that may be a terrific or just o.k. sort of club — it’s not the church of Jesus Christ.

So as awful as it may sound, to ask longtime members to worship elsewhere for a time, so that a new culture can be established in a congregation, makes plenty sense to me.

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