Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two Churches, Two Paths

With apologies to Robert Frost...

About a mile from my house there is a United Methodist Church. I do not attend this church, but I know it is a UMC as it says so everywhere you look. The church has been there for 20 years or so now, in a small but very nice worship center nestled in a beautiful tree-covered lot. It is located on a major road, near restaurants and office complexes. The entrance to one of the largest and most affluent neighborhoods in all of northwest Hillsborough County lies just across the street.  There are several signs indicating the things that go on there, including an electronic sign that was added just a few years ago. I am sure that when this church was "planted" there were high hopes for great growth and major impact. But that simply has not happened. It remains a small congregation seeking an identity. They continue to try all sorts of programs and gimmicks to increase attendance and draw attention to their ministry, but nothing seems to work. In the past 20 years they have had more pastors than I could count, with the UMC itinerant system moving them in and out on a regular basis. They have tried many styles of worship to attract new members with limited results. Even with their wonderful location and attractive property, they have not grown.  And it is wearing them down.  In the summer of 2012 their electronic sign began advertising a new traditional worship service that would begin at 8 AM on September 9. Just a few weeks ago that same sign was still carrying the same message. September 9, 2013 had passed and no one seemed to notice. The sign might have well have been flashing, "We're Irrelevant!" to those driving by on that very busy road. Out of curiosity I checked their website for service times and discovered that 8 AM traditional service has been discontinued. Thankfully, the electronic sign has been turned of- or simply quit working.

About 10 miles away from that church, in a remote corner of Hillsborough County, is the church I do attend. It is located in a spot that you must be looking for to find, hidden away on a short country road. Despite its large congregation and significance in the community, there are no billboards, blimps or TV commercials to direct you there- just word of mouth.  It too is a UMC church, although I feel certain there are many who attend regularly without ever knowing that fact. The denominational affiliation is simply not mentioned very often, whether on signs, bulletins (back when there was a bulletin; now there is simply an announcement sheet), the website or from the pulpit. Well, actually, there is no pulpit. The worship room is lacking in most of the elements found in a traditional UMC church. The church is 28 years old, and has had the same pastor for the last 20 of those years. They offer one style of worship in 3 services, a more contemporary focus with a praise band and great use of video and drama. There is tremendous focus on prayer. I have been attending 7 years now, and I don't know that I have ever heard mention of upcoming committee meetings or other church business during worship. I assume they have a yearly Charge Conference like every UMC. but I have never heard it mentioned. There is no yearly budget push, just a regular encouragement to give and opportunities to go above and beyond with special giving. The congregation actually APPLAUDS when it's time to receive tithes and offerings! I have no idea about the political leanings of the pastor, because he preaches Jesus, not politics. I have witnessed sermons preached in Spanish and translated into Swahili; adult baptisms in a pool brought in for just such occasions; dancing rappers and regular "altar calls" following the very biblical sermons. There is much focus on missions, from Tampa to Tanzania. Just this week the church family has given 5 tons of food to Metropolitan Ministries to help families with Thanksgiving celebrations and will be collecting thousands of Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes. They also partnered with the United Methodist Committee on Relief to send aid the Philippines. There is a ministry to kids who have lost parents or siblings; a ministry to special needs kids; high impact student and children's ministries; outreach to the least, the lost and the homeless; and a continuing effort to give those of us who participate the tools we need to help others connect with Jesus. Grace is both preached and practiced, and we are always aware that the church is not about us- it is all about JesusThe church is far from perfect, and is filled with imperfect people. It has become a very large church, yet there is no amusement park for the kids and no Starbucks for the adults. There is only Jesus, crucified and resurrected. I am blessed and honored to be a part of such a congregation.

This past Sunday, as the electronic sign at church #1 stood dormant and the small crowd trickled in, church #2 welcomed in 151 new adult members (and 60+ of their children!) - most by profession of faith! For those of you who don't speak church language, that means these folks were not coming from other churches. There was no "sheep stealing" going on here. These were people who had come to know Christ through the ministries of this church. I thought to myself as I watched the multitudes (from my perch running camera number 4) fill the platform that this new member class was larger than at least 70% of the UMC churches in the US. In this day of declining membership and attendance in so many mainstream churches, church #2 is thriving. And the big question is...WHY

If I knew the answers, I would be at home by the fireplace sitting in front of my stack of best-selling books. It is a temptation to say that of course a church with a large budget, such a big staff and great facilities is growing, when in fact it was prayer, vision and stepping out in faith that precipitated all of those wonderful resources. And now that they are available, the fact that they are used for God's glory is the key. In truth, I know very little about church #1. I have no idea why it struggles so mightily despite its advantageous location and beautiful property. I just know it does. But I do have some understanding of why church #2 has grown and thrived. There has been long-term and consistent pastoral leadership that has cultivated vision and passion in the congregation. Having worked with 2 senior pastors who were at their respective churches for over 35 years, you will never convince me that randomly changing leadership every few years is a good idea. There has been a willingness to step out of the comfort zone of the traditional boundaries of the UMC to risk creativity and push the limits of what is "allowed" by stepping out in faith - even when it seems completely crazy. And most importantly, church #2 has been laser-focused on believing that the Church does not belong to any one denomination, age group or theological leaning. The Church belongs to God. Our mission is to connect people to Jesus and to each other, to preach and live grace, to heal the hurting and to take the gospel into the world.  It is a church where all are welcome and all are loved- I know, because they accepted me. I am afraid in today's society those things often take a backseat to style, politics. personal issues or tradition. Church #2 is taking the road less traveled and showing the wild, ridiculous and overwhelming love of God whose name is Jesus to a lost and hurting world.  And that has made all the difference...

Because of Jesus,


  1. Anonymous11/13/2013

    WOW!! Really wish there was a Church #2 near me. Many of the general issues that you speak about has kept me from attending a regular service. Thankful that Jesus is in my heart!!

    1. Thankful for that too, and praying that you will find a church home that puts Jesus first!

  2. For some reason I feel like weighing in...

    1) In defense of the other church, we simply don't know what critical junctures may have happened along the way to derail numerical growth. We also know little about the spiritual vitality of the small congregation.

    2) Not having a denominational label is, for a set of complicated reasons that are hard to disentangle, obviously an asset. For a perspective on this, though, I recommend this blog post on why so many of the 100 largest UMC congregations "shun Methodism:"

    3) I think there is tremendous value in churches having long-tenured pastors. The UM itinerant system is full of real problems. But the flip side of long-tenured pastors at the most "successful" churches is that the churches use their clout in the conference to keep their pastor there, and it turns out that some (some, not all) of the most talented, dynamic, and capable pastors share their gifts and graces with the largest and wealthiest congregations, while other churches who could benefit from the leadership of some of these "top" pastors simply never get an opportunity to have one of these pastors.

    4) I would bet a lot of money that your pastor shares your political views. Almost without exception, my experience in this area tells me that when people say "I don't know my pastor's politics," they mean "my pastor (mostly) shares my politics." When a pastor shares a parishioner's politics, the parishioner says, "S/he isn't political, s/he just preaches Jesus." But when the pastor's politics differ, the parishioner complains, "My pastor is too political." Not saying there's anything inherently good or bad about this, but in my experience it rings true. If your pastor had political views that were mostly different from your own, especially given how long s/he has been there, you'd know it.

    Just a few thoughts. Enjoyed reading about this. Saw a tweet from Bishop Carter expressing joy at this church's flourishing.

    1. Thanks for your input and insights old friend. All your points are valid. However I seriously don't know the pastor's political views. Which I suppose means I don't know that I disagree with them. And that does help.


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