The seeds of the Churches’ renewal are hidden in the soils of local congregations.
Recently United Methodists of Florida held our annual conference (the yearly gathering of clergy and laity across the state). While every year there are some exciting highlights, the significant bummer moment of each year is the announcement of closed churches (this year 5 total). Corresponding with this announcement comes my annual disgruntled Facebook post about the sad and in some cases unnecessary nature of these closures.
It feels like my annual throwing rocks at the tank moment, which is increasingly awkward as in some sense I am part of the tank crew. Throwing rocks at tanks is not particularly effective, eventually you get run over, but at least it makes a lot of noise and draws attention to the scene.
This year’s post received a flurry of comments and reactions, both in support and opposition. Usually those responses can be broken down into two schools of thought:
- The closure of churches is inevitable, nothing can really reverse their fate.
- The closure of churches is not inevitable, revitalization is always a possibility.
It’s interesting that we would hold to position 1, being that every conference has people who are paid full salaries to do this work. I happen to be mainly a position 2 person, but knowing that we need to take a dialectical both/and approach to this question.
For over a decade, I have served a series of four revitalization congregations. From 2008-2011 I was an assistant pastor at St. Marks UMC. In those years, we planted a church for people in recovery called CPR (Christ Powered Recovery), which quickly grew to about the same size as the existing congregation. This was my first experiment with what we now call a “Fresh Expression of Church.” Lochloosa UMC, which grew from under 20 people in worship to about 100 in one year through planting a church with servers who worked at Diane’s Diner (a local restaurant in nearby Hawthorne). In 2012, I was appointed to Wildwood UMC. My wife Jill and I now serve as co-pastors (we have both served other congregations while at Wildwood for these past 9 years as well).
The Wildwood revitalization has served as a case study for what is called a “blended ecology of church.” We call the process of what has happened here “re-missioning.” This is a method of prayerfully listening to what the Spirit is up to, and joining in. It is a breed of revitalization, but one in which the inherited congregation experiences new life, not through internal tinkering (better preaching, worship, programs, coffee, and so on) but resurrection from the outside in. I’ve written extensively about this in my first book Deep Roots, Wild Branches: Revitalizing the Church in the Blended Ecology.
Essentially it’s a way of giving birth and raising the dead at the same time.
Just this July, I was sent back to the congregation that birthed, reared, and sent me out onto the mission field, St. Marks UMC. This congregation has a place near and dear to my heart. I’m sharing this story with the full support of the faithful leaders of St. Marks. People I love and cherish.
Over the past couple weeks, I conducted interviews with leaders who have been involved with revitalizations. I asked each of them if anyone has sought them out to learn from what they’re doing. The answer was an unfortunate “no.” This is intriguing to me. I’m a person who is always learning from what other people do. I seek to understand principles, processes, and strategies that they use, and then try to understand how those may or may not be contextualized in my own setting.
This is what scholars call “positive deviation.” Positive Deviance refers to an approach to social change based on “deviants” whose uncommon but successful strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge. So, we study “positive deviants,” distill learnings, and spread throughout the whole system.
Being that no one from my own denomination has ever intentionally asked us how we do what we do. This blog will serve as a kind of diary for the journey of revitalization that is beginning at St. Marks.
The graph below indicates how St. Marks has been in an unbroken state of decline since 2001. In that 20 years, there is a single anomaly, from 2008 to 2011 (CPR mentioned above).
Currently, the congregation has had a total of three “professions of faith” in the last five years (new Christians coming to faith). Also, we are over $50,000 in debt simply for mandatory items that must be paid to function in our denomination. Additionally, we need a roof on one of our buildings, and massive repairs and upgrades to the facility. Some weeks of each month, the offering is zero. The neighborhood surrounding the congregation is in a part of the city in which most people are experiencing poverty. Finally, the icing on the cake of all this is an acceleration of cases in COVID-19 and all the challenges that come with it.
Admittedly, there is a possibility this congregation may still close.
It’s much easier to write the story after you know the ending. But whatever happens here, I think the learnings can bring hope and fresh possibilities to others who may be feeling the frustration of loving a church that is in decline.
I believe lots of churches need to die, but no church needs to close. Those are two different things. When a congregation becomes willing to die to who it has been, so that a new creation can emerge, that congregation can experience new life (Jn 12:24). If we are not willing to do that, we will probably close.
St. Marks is a total anomaly among the congregations I’ve had experience with. To be blunt, many churches are in decline because of the current members of those churches. Churches with long histories can slip into a maintenance mode, a kind of country club with a cross on the wall. One of the congregations I served voted “not to grow,” meaning they thought my job was to take care of them, not to lead them in mission to the community. Usually, revitalization involves some metanoia in the existing congregation, a fundamental change of mind, to turn in the other direction. This is why revitalization congregations will typically get smaller before they grow, stake holders of the status quo will leave when change starts to occur.
However, this is not the case at St. Marks UMC. Each of the key leaders is totally committed to be in mission to the community. In just three months we have started a drive-thru community dinner and have a couple fresh expressions in process. The key problem is the finances of the church and the inability of the existing congregation to pay for the upkeep of the property, salaries, and denominational obligations. This reality is however not an anomaly among church closures. We are racing the clock. Can we engage our community in a missionally fruitful way before the sand passes through the financial hourglass? We don’t know, but I invite you to join us in the journey of failing forward.
So, I will begin this diary, on a realistic but hopeful note. In my next entry, I will describe step by step what we have done so far, and how we are seeing the Spirit at work.
 Beck, Michael. Deep Roots, Wild Branches: Revitalizing the Church in the Blended Ecology. Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2019.