The article says that the Methodist response to ongoing decline is threefold: "Better pastors. Healthier churches. Less bureaucracy." Regardless of denominational affiliation, I'm sure that all of us would like to see that happening in our churches!
But the question is how to achieve it. There's an unavoidable tension for most mainline churches between shifting into a full-blown mission focus on the one hand, and the maintenance needs of aging church buildings, clergy and lay staff compensation (with sky-rocketing health insurance costs), other bureaucratic needs, etc. Is it really possible to be simultaneously mission-minded and maintenance-minded? Or must we make some difficult, painful decisions about the maintenance side of church life? As I've noted in a previous posting, one of my clergy colleagues puts it like this: "This is about life or death. Choose mission or die." But perhaps choosing mission also requires a kind of death as the only way to new life.
Some think that the solution is to get more people into our churches. We should focus our evangelism efforts on growing our membership and average Sunday attendance. Certainly, such growth can be a sign of vitality. But the vitality that comes with more people showing up at church is not necessarily the same thing as genuine Christian formation. We cannot assume that church attendance equals discipleship.
Along those lines, I'm struck by another part of the newspaper article about the Methodists:
Some critics say the focus on growing membership goes too far. Thomas E. Frank, professor of religious leadership at Wake Forest University, said developing better Christians, not more churchgoers, should be the goal.
"I am concerned about a creeping theology that says what's important is to get people into the church," he said.
Dan Dick, Methodist blogger and former researcher for the Methodists' Nashville-based General Board of Discipleship, agreed. "If we don't know what to do with the ... people we already have, there's no reason to believe that we'll do any better with another million people."
Dan makes an important point, particularly in light of tendencies towards failing Christianity within many mainline churches. Answering the question, "How can we grow?" is not sufficient. Nor is growth itself. We need to also answer the question, "Why should we grow?" Which, in turn, presupposes an answer to the question, "Why does the Church exist in the first place?"