We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Turning the Church Around - Really?

As described in a posting on the Christian Post website (here)," Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee, has recently release a paper entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church."  The paper argues that the United Methodist Church (UMC) is facing a crisis of decline, which it must address urgently and strategically, and it proposes an ambitious plan to reverse Methodist decline by 2021, that is within eight years.  Marshaling an array of statistical data and analysis, Dr. House's plan calls for 998 Methodist churches to employ a program called the "Benchmark Project," which is designed to help churches increase giving to strategic causes on the premise that there is strong statistical evidence showing that when churches increase their budgets significantly in strategic ways statistical church growth will necessarily follow "on average".  According to his calculations, 998 church successfully taking part in the Benchmark Project will turn around UMC decline by 2021.

It is an ambitious proposal to be sure.  And as is the case with any such proposal it raises a number of questions, which those involved in carrying out the Benchmark Project will want to consider—if they have not already.  The first concern, frankly, is cynicism.  The mainline has been in decline for two full generations.  That decline has generated a huge literature, countless proposals, projects, and plans.  There is a mountain of research and data one can sift through.  The very first feeling one has in picking up Dr. House's Benchmark proposal is, "Really?  Again?"  The paper itself does little to allay this initial cynicism.  What it actually proposes is rather meagre in the face of the dire picture it paints of the current state of the UMC.  Churches are charged with raising additional funds in amounts significant enough to improve the fiscal state of the church.  Advisory committees are to be formed.  The church hierarchy is to pick participating churches where the leadership is strong enough to carry out the project successfully.  There's not much more to it than that, actually.  The rest of the report either describes the need for a project or presents the data that proves that increasing a church's funding will lead "on average" to increased worship attendance.  "Really?"

Now, Dr. House, responds, "Yes, really!"  He has statistical data, carefully researched, demonstrating his point.  Let us grant his point, but one has to wonder if there 998 churches out there that undertake the Benchmark Project and how many of them can do so successfully.  On the face of it, it seems too easy, to certain, and somehow too superficial to really be successful in solving a problem that has only grown worse over the last 50 years and has begun to engulf even evangelical churches previously known for their growth.

Perhaps the Benchmark Project proposed in Dr. House's paper is the solution the Methodists have been looking for.  But, it is going to take a good deal more "show me" to overcome the initial sense of skepticism it will certainly face.