I confess to enjoying watching Star Trek, specifically “The Next Generation.” Its on Netflix and it is easy on a snowy day to watch one right after another.
As I’ve watched many episodes close together I’d like to share this bit of advice to the characters on the Enterprise. Don’t get on that shuttle again!
In almost every episode in which someone gets on a shuttle they are attacked by aliens, or abducted, or crash, or are stranded etc. etc. It is obviously a tool in the plot to get characters off the ship and into the wider world. But it always, yes always ends up in disaster.
It also is a reminder that people (including church people) have a tendency in the real world to continue to do things over and over again that are seriously unproductive and even dangerous, simply because we’ve gotten used to doing them or even feel a need to do them again and again.
Today I felt that way about yet another national denominational report about the shrinking US membership of the United Methodist Church.
I’ve come to believe that all of the continued discussion and hand-ringing about our membership is counterproductive and may even be dangerous to the possibility of future growth for our Church and more importantly to the mission of our Church.
Why? Because it creates and strengthens negative perceptions about the UMC, about or local churches and even about our ministry. It makes membership numbers THE litmus test for the work of the Church and it may indeed discourage persons looking at the UMC from becoming a part of our family of faith.
Why do I say that our continued churning about membership could actually keep people out of the Church? Because a lot of the growth and success (if we want to use that word) of any organization or human endeavor rides on perception.
If we all have a negative perception about the future of the UMC or the future of our local church that negativity is felt by persons who come as guests to our churches, who read about our faith family and are looking for a place to call their faith home.
I’ve shared the story more than once that I joined a local civic organization when I was younger. After joining I had an older member of the group come to me and say something to the effect, “I’m so glad you have joined. Boy we need young people. Our organization is dying. We probably won’t be around much longer. So glad you are here!” I very seriously considered asking for my dues back and walking out the door. The last thing I wanted to be was the token young person who was going to save their organization. Yet that same organization had a lot to offer that they were failing to tell me about because they could not stop talking about membership decline.
Additionally the problem with our membership discussion is that it causes to focus on something that is not really our mission. We say our mission as United Methodists is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But you’d think from all the membership news stories that our mission was to make church members.
Making disciples is a whole lot more meaningful than making church membership. Church members sit in pews. Church members are counted on our membership roll. But that may be about it. You can be a church member and never become a disciple. You can become a church member and never live up to the gospel call for both personal and social holiness.
Disciples learn to follow Jesus Christ, disciples learn about God’s grace and let it touch their lives and the lives of others in powerful ways. Disciples walk out of the front door of the church on Sunday with the goal of not just making the world a better place but of transforming it. Disciples roll up their sleeves and reach out to the needy, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unloved and seek to be made perfect in love. And, by the way, you do not have to actually be a church member to do those things. But you do have to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
What is wrong with the membership discussion is that we would ever consider being satisfied with just getting church members. We are in this ministry for a much higher and more holy goal to transform this world for Christ.
But we aren’t going to do that if we mope about and focus on the numbers. The irony is that the best way to grow the membership of the Church is not to focus on membership. But instead to focus our our mission in the world.
We need to take our focus off of ourselves and put our focus back on our call to transform the world. We need to stop doing a head count and just get out there and minister. So when you suggest we need to have a heart to heart about the shrinking membership of the UMC again I’m going to say, “Stop! Don’t get on that shuttle again!”