I’ve been following the “Call to Action” debate on the twitter feeds from the Methodist General Conference. I realize that I’m just a scrub barely two years out of seminary. I still believe in theories; I still believe that fasting and prayer is the best approach to discerning God’s will. I’ve never had any training in systems theory or corporate organizational effectiveness. I’m the product of what the pundits malign when they say that seminaries should teach pastors practical managerial skills instead of filling their heads with all that !@#$%^&* theology. Somehow I’ve developed this foolish notion that God gives me things to say, and so I proclaim them, hoping that they’re not nonsense. The word that I have been given today is that United Methodists need less anxiety and more kingdom.
I speak as someone who is riddled with anxiety about our congregation’s numbers. There are two people in our church who read through every name on the attendance pad each week: myself and the secretary who enters the attendance in the database. We have been more or less steady at 400 weekly worship attendance for the past year after coming down about 40-50 a year from 800+ at our peak in 2003 (a 50% atrophy in 9 years — wow!). But the last two weeks, we have averaged about 340, which is demoralizing to me for the two weeks after Easter. However, this is mitigated by the fact that we also had more first-time visitors than we had most of the Sundays in Lent. When the visitor attendance reports have to be stapled, I’m a happy man. My dream is one day to hold a three-page visitor attendance report in my hands. I’ll probably spend a good twenty minutes softly rubbing the papers between my fingers if that ever happens. Our giving report is likewise something I obsess over. Our budget requires an average around $20K a week. When we have a $12K week, I feel it like a kick to the kidneys. When we have a $25K week, I do a fist pump.
Brooding over these reports feels like the least spiritually healthy thing that I do all week. I hate myself for deriving so much of my emotional well-being from whether I can hold at least two pages worth of visitors in my hand and for feeling like a failure if the signup clipboard for our new member class isn’t at least half a page full with names that are not written in my handwriting with question marks. When we have bad weeks statistically, it fills my head with all sorts of presumptuous judgments about the people from our congregation who aren’t there. (Why can’t you play golf on Saturdays? I wish I had a house in Rehobeth Beach too! Are you really that hung over? I know church attendance won’t get your kids into Harvard, but maybe it will help them not do as many drugs when they get there. Etc.)
I don’t sense that a whole lot of spiritual fruit comes out of my obsession with studying our numbers. It feels like a dirty secret addiction. I know that it fills me with all sorts of bitterness against the surrounding megachurches that are somehow thriving in this god-awful suburgatory where we live. Honestly, I wouldn’t call Northern Virginia a suburgatory if it weren’t for my obsession with our church attendance; I would just think it’s “a great place to raise a family” like everybody else. I wish I could just go to a park with my family and enjoy their company (without wondering if we might strike up a conversation with another family that might not have a church home and then cursing myself for forgetting my business card). I recognize I don’t understand all the ins and outs of the UMC “Call to Action,” but I loathe the thought that the United Methodist Church would systematically replicate and normalize the Spirit-killing, obsessive anxiety that I have suffered privately and am striving so hard to transcend.
I don’t have another solution or plan, but what I can share is how God reaches out to me despite my obsessive habits. The fertilizer that creates spiritual fruit in my heart is when I see the kingdom break out in our midst despite our best efforts to micromanage God’s work. There are several things happening right now in our church that give me hope. There are two families in our church who have taken people into their homes who aren’t related to them as an act of extreme hospitality completely against the grain of middle-class suburban culture. There are also several young and not-so-young adults who have walked in our door in the last year with a past that was blacked out by addiction or mental illness. They are starting to blossom with an identity that is completely derived in God’s deliverance. And I honestly believe that God sent those people as angels to us for the sake of our own deliverance as a congregation, because we are sanctified as we struggle through how to be a loving family to people who have not internalized the complex taboo system of white middle-upper class social interaction.
Show them the kingdom. That’s what the voice says that I think is God talking. If people could just see the kingdom, wouldn’t they be more compelled into discipleship than by attending pep rallies to celebrate our adequate yearly progress on reaching our vital congregation benchmarks? The ministries that we develop should have the purpose of breathing a kingdom culture into our church that breaks the hold that the world’s routines and idols have on our congregation members. Unless we are presenting them with a wholly different reality that they are robustly and constantly invited into, then what’s the point of them coming to church more than every once in a while when they happen to be in the neighborhood and need an hour of “peace”?
When people taste the kingdom, they become advocates of the kingdom. They’re not just committed to coming; they’re committed to building; because the victory of the kingdom becomes the purpose of their lives. I’m not sure how to translate that into practical application. But it seems like we should constantly be asking: What should we do or not do so that the kingdom may be revealed in our midst? I worry that in the how-to part of the vital congregation goal-setting, our churches will pursue demographic-targeting gimmicks instead of asking how each of our ministries bears witness to a kingdom that makes fishermen leave their nets and tax collectors leave their booths behind.
I don’t need anyone to tell me to obsess over numbers; I already do. Perhaps others ought to do more what I’ve been doing too much. Perhaps other pastors need leverage from above against the “We’ve always done it this way” curmudgeons on their church councils. However useful or unuseful the “Call to Action” proposal is, our implementation of whatever we end up having will be most successful if we keep in mind that our anxiety is not attractive, but God’s kingdom is.