The United Methodist Church membership keeps shrinking in the United States, but some areas contradict the trend. The surprise this year was Indiana. At the Indiana Annual Conference gathering this summer in Muncie, conference members learned that membership was 200,620, up 3,271 from the past year. Average worship attendance was 117,750, up 1,013. This was the first time United Methodism in Indiana has shown growth in both those categories in more than 30 years.
The Rev. Mark Gough, director of church development for the Indiana Conference, answered questions from managing editor Sam Hodges about the turnaround.
What’s your short explanation for why the Indiana Conference grew this year?
As we developed the structure of the new conference (the former North and South Indiana Conferences became the new Indiana Conference in 2009), we purposely developed a structure that supported the mission: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The bishop, directors, superintendents, all conference leaders and pastors began to talk about how what we are doing supports the mission. This raised the issues of membership, professions of faith, worship attendance and membership as key indicators of how we are doing.
You have an unusual approach to using conference staff for church or congregational development. Talk about that.
We believed it was important to put feet on the ground. Our six-member church development team is busy supporting and teaching best practices all the way around including, starting new worship services, new congregations, visioning, multi-site ministry and church revitalization. This team is proactive about supporting the mission. We also have been clear to state that the MISSION of each local church is: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
How do the members of that team advise a church without getting too bossy or intrusive?
We are bossy and intrusive, but with a smile. We also try to present the facts about how effective or ineffective they are in making disciples. Time is short, and we need to stay focused on making disciples. Our first question to leaders of a local church at a platitude or in decline is: “How is what you have been doing working for you?” You can’t expect to do the same things and get different results.
Explain the “Fruitful Congregations Journey” and how it helped with the improving numbers, if you think it did.
We are too early in the process to say this has improved the numbers. We believe it will be a big help in the coming years. The Fruitful Congregations Journey is a leadership development program. Step one is for lay leaders and the pastors of the local church. Step two is to do a weekend consultation to help the local church become outwardly focused, with specific steps to move forward. Step three involves a coach helping the local church move forward to complete the steps toward growth.
What sort of presence does Bishop Mike Coyner have in the Conference and has his presence been a factor?
Bishop Coyner is the most important factor. His leadership of focusing on the mission set the propriety for the conference. Everyplace he speaks he focuses on three important issues: First, the MISSION; second, Wesley’s three simple rules and third, the five practices of a fruitful congregation. He also is focused on training leaders to focus on the mission.
Are you able to pinpoint whether your growth is occurring mostly in rural areas, suburbs or cities?
The growth was across the state and in every area. It is very interesting that when we first saw the final numbers, we assumed that the large churches grew and that was the key. What we discovered when we dug into the information is that some of our largest churches declined, but the trend was across the board. Large, small, rural, suburban and urban, we had churches in each category that grew. My learning from this is: When you focus on the mission and make some changes to implement the mission, every church can grow.
Is there a formula – say in worship style – that can be applied to help churches grow?
The method of starting additional worship services has been the best practice for new growth. We discovered that worship is cultural and needs to be designed to reach the culture in the church’s mission field. The key is to make worship about the mission.
Is there one church success story – in terms of growth, or reversing losses – that you would want to mention?
Barnes UMC in Indianapolis, a predominately African-American church, started two multi-site worship services and grew by 275 people in average worship attendance. St. James West UMC in Evansville, with a part-time lay pastor, started a new Monday evening service for young people and grew by 120.
The conference saw growth in membership and attendance, but not in Sunday school attendance. What’s the continuing problem there, and is there a strategy for turning that around too?
Most of our growing churches have moved to small groups for adult education and are not making Sunday school a high priority.
Has Indiana put into place the “dashboard” system of metrics? If not, is it something you’re considering?
We are part of the denomination’s Vital Congregations project. This project emphasizes and provides software for an improved method of keeping statistics.
The conventional wisdom is that the UMC is shrinking especially fast in certain geographic areas, including the North. Is geography destiny, or do you think other Northern, Northeastern or Western Conferences can grow too?
Every area can grow. You just need to focus on the MISSION: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
What one piece of advice would you give to a conference that’s trying to figure out a way to get back in the “black” numbers?
It is all about the mission. When we focus on making disciples and keep that the first priority, we grow in every area.
Finally, when you received the good news about membership and attendance, did you pop a bottle of champagne?
No, we popped a bottle of Dr. Pepper, then we were skeptical, so we checked the numbers again, then we got back to work.
This question-and-answer article was first published in August 2011 in the United Methodist Reporter, an independent church-related newspaper based in Dallas, Texas. UMR Communications gave permission for reprinting the story. © 2011.