A Short Account of a Continuing Journey – 1

As we move into a new year together, our 201st year as a Conference, I thought that the next three weeks would be a good time to assess where we have come from in recent years and where we think God is leading us.

Just over two decades ago we began to wake up and realize that we were experiencing a phenomenon that had never occurred in the two hundred year history of the Methodist Church. Since that time, the North Alabama Conference has been one of the leaders in honestly confronting our contemporary challenges and organizing ourselves to confront the challenges.

What we have learned:

This has been a grand two decades of self-reflection and beginning realignment by our church. Most of our thought has been stimulated by the realization that we have lost nearly 20% of our membership. We could not continue doing church the same way without getting exactly the same poor results.

Church growth guru Gil Rendle (who has been very helpful to our Cabinet in its work) notes some of the stages we have been through on our way toward positioning our church for reaching a new generation for Christ.

  1. We have confronted our passive barriers to growth. We discovered that we have unintentionally excluded new members and younger members simply by the unintended passive barriers that we erected. Some of our churches had to unlock the doors that lead into the church from the parking lot. We found that many congregations lacked noticeable, effective signage. We placed reserved parking signs for visitors and worked to make our church more accessible. We shortened, and attempted to make more effective our church meetings – dramatically shortening the time expended for Annual Conference, making Annual Conference more accessible for the laity.
  2. We debated the theological factors that might have contributed to our decline. We learned that it wasn’t a simple matter of conservative vs. liberal (such labels came to mean less and less). It wasn’t a matter of taking controversial stands on social issues (sorry, IRD and Good News, that’s virtually irrelevant to the issue of church growth). We found it was a matter of robust believe in the Trinity – a God who is constantly reaching out into the world, a Christ who is determined to have a family, constantly calling disciples. A faithful church is a church that is always growing, always making new disciples.
  3. We heard some saying that, for a new generation, our denominational identity had become a problem. People had moved from being apathetic toward denominational labels to being downright hostile. We were told to take “United Methodist” off our signs and letterheads. Eventually we discovered that our denominational identity could be a gift – many people in Alabama have a very positive reaction to the name “Methodist.” We have a great theological heritage and a responsible polity. Furthermore, we have found that our Conference can be a great resource in training church leaders in how to grow their churches (NCD) and a means of growing new churches (while I look forward to the day when individual congregations will start new churches, today ALL of our successful new church starts are attributable to planning and funding by the Conference).
  4. We realized that too many of our congregations had no expectation that they could grow; they thought that unmitigated decline was their fate. We therefore have been engaged in a decade of training churches in who to move from being inward focused to outward focused, in how to stress mission over maintenance. Although over half of our congregations are still in decline, we have at last communicated to all our churches and pastors that growth is expected, planned, and is God’s will for the church. The new Conference Dashboard is a dramatic, visible means of creating expectation for growth and recognizing and honoring those churches where God is giving a rich harvest.
  5. We heard those church observers who taught that the fastest growing churches, the churches of the future were “megachurches” – young, large congregations. By my count we have only two of these megacongregations, yet they account for a disproportionate share of our growth. These two congregations – Asbury and ClearBranch – have had a remarkable effect upon dozens of our growing churches, pioneering new practices and changing the attitude of decline to the expectation of growth.

All of these understandings have arisen in the last few years of reflection, critique and visioning. Next week, I’ll focus on some of the things we have learned about transformative leadership and change in our church.

Will Willimon

7 thoughts on “A Short Account of a Continuing Journey – 1

  1. This is positive and encouraging information. I would be interested to know where “tradition” comes into play with contemporary society and church growth. I personally come from a very non-traditional church setting and see the negative results of not having set moorings. On the other hand, I know that current discipleship requires contemporary dialog. I was interested to know if finding the tension between these two ever was a point of discussion.


  2. While we are at it we might want to look into reforming the process it took for analyzing and implementing solutions. I don’t believe that people are as denominationally loyal as they probably once were and before they wait twenty years for problems to be solved they might just simply choose to move to another church or denomination altogether. Good article though and I’m looking forward to reading more.


  3. I very much enjoyed this article and look forward to those that follow in this series. I’m also glad to know that NCD is working well in so many churches. Unfortunately, it’s been a tough sell in my church, but I pray that our key leaders will reaffirm their commitment to the process and our church will get back on board.


  4. I am encouraged by this, especially the acknowledgement that labels such as liberal and conservative have lost their meaning and are no longer helpful. One thing I would strongly challenge is the idea that megachurches are the way of the future. They are one way the Spirit works, yes, but to bank on one model as if that’s the key is the same cookie cutter mentality we’ve often struggled with. Aside from the flaw in the assumption that we need to find THE model that works, as opposed to a Pauline organic understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ, there is plenty if scholarship pointing out that the way of the future is something else, something emergent and I believe it.


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