Photo courtesy of The Compass. Youth from The Compass surround Charlie from Snug Harbor Home Health, a guest at their Christmas party. The youth raised $1,000 to buy gifts for nine adults with cognitive disabilities. They then threw a party and gave the guests the gifts. Eighty-eight youth and leaders participated in the Shop, Wrap, Serve and Give mission opportunity, a blessing for people that are sometimes forgotten during the holiday season. FCJ helped The Compass renew and refocus its emphasis on its missions.

“We are all called to make disciples, and we were doing that, but we didn’t have a strategic, intentional way of doing it.” – Mark Elcessor

A program with roots in the American Baptist Church in northern California is transforming United Methodist congregations throughout Indiana. One pastor called it “the best emphasis I’ve seen in my 30 years of being a Hoosier United Methodist pastor.”

“We’re always implementing things as a congregation, that’s nothing new,” said the Reverend Mark Ellcessor, senior pastor of The Compass United Methodist Church, formerly Selma UMC until January 1 of this year. “But we didn’t have a strategic way of making disciples – Fruitful Congregation Journey (FCJ) put that on the front burner.”

“FCJ really helped us focus on what we were doing,” said Mike Richardson, The Compass’ single board chair. “Instead of a shotgun approach it gave us more of a rifle. It focused us on our mission, and Dan Glover (The Compass’ FCJ coach) brought a lot of love and compassion to the process.”

And that is exactly what the Indiana Conference Church Development team wants FCJ to accomplish.

“Fruitful Congregation Journey isn’t really a church-growth program, though many churches will experience growth,” said Ed Fenstermacher, associate director for church development. “It’s designed to help congregations become more effective in carrying out the mission of the church, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

FCJ is a team-based discovery process that helps churches to more effectively carry out their ministry.

Its design comes from the work of Paul Borden, who helped turn around the American Baptist Church in northern California in the 1990s. The process was developed by the Missouri Annual Conference, which has been actively using it and perfecting it for nearly 10 years. In Missouri, 80 percent of the churches that have been in the process for at least 18 months have experienced an increase in their average worship attendance. Half of the churches have grown by 5 percent or more.

FCJ is now spreading to other United Methodist conferences, including the Indiana Conference. The first Indiana congregations began their journey in 2010. Since then, 243 congregations have taken part or are now in the process.

FCJ is a three-step program that can last up to four years. (See more about the process here.)

The church development team works with the district superintendents to invite churches into the process, but Fenstermacher said that a church can always contact their district superintendent and request to be in the program.

While the process is not for churches in crisis or conflict, it is helpful for healthy churches, as well as churches that are stuck or declining.

“It holds up a mirror to a dying church; they can no longer be in denial,” he said. “They are forced to look at what may be painful next steps to move ahead in ministry.”

That honest assessment of where a church is can be difficult, and may cause some churches to prefer the status quo. But Ellcessor cautions against that.

“One thing pastors have to overcome (in this process) is fear of exposure, fear of not measuring up in all the ways we worry about. But an honest assessment of ministry and how my church can better make disciples? Why wouldn’t I want that?” he said.

In any case, FCJ allows churches to customize the directions and outcomes to fit their church’s particular ministry context.

“It is not a cookie-cutter approach,” Fenstermacher said. “It is,” he said, “for any church that is serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

The Compass has recently completed their 18-month FCJ process. With two campuses and their sights on a third, they are serious about making disciples. And while this all began before their Fruitful Congregation Journey, Ellcessor said, “FCJ forced us to bring everything together.”

“FCJ really clarified our mission,” he said. “We’re embracing that. We are all called to make disciples, and we were doing that, but we didn’t have a strategic, intentional way of doing it.”

Fenstermacher said that even though the Missouri Conference points to increased attendance figures as a result of the program, it is too early to tell if those same results will hold true for Indiana, even though early numbers are promising.

“Some numbers are going up, but we’ve only been in this for less than five years,” he said “Those rises could be a statistical anomaly. We want to do statistical analysis five years down the road and look at attendance, profession of faith, those sorts of numbers.”

But the church development team is enthusiastic about the program because of the many intangibles FCJ has brought about.

“Churches that have gone through the process are more outward focused, more missional,” Fenstermacher said. “The laity are empowered to move forward as active members, not just passive attendees. Churches streamline and simplify their structures and clarify their vision. Most importantly, FCJ churches are more intentionally pursuing their mission, becoming more outward focused and have clearer direction.”

“To me, it’s not just theory,” Ellcessor said. “It’s the bread and butter of who Jesus called us to be. His mandate is to do what he did: make followers. FCJ is a process of seeing who we are as a church, and if you embrace that, you can change the world.”