When a megachurch pastor picks on small churches, you can bet they will turn the mirror around.
Armchair Diagnosis for Dying Churches
A recent article in Faith and Leadership interviews Rev. Andrew Forrest, campus pastor of Munger Place UMC in Dallas. It’s a successful church with a growing population, so the article focuses on the church and Forrest’s leadership.
However, it takes a turn midway through the (long) interview to a place that I really found distasteful. Here’s the quote from Forrest:
Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.
The problem is not the gardens. I’m being provocative to make a point. The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.
We don’t actually disciple our people. We don’t teach them about the Bible; we don’t actually do the core practices of the faith. So there are dying Methodist churches in every ZIP code in America that have a few old people coming to them, and they say, “We need to reach out to young people, so let’s start a community garden.”
Fortunately for Forrest, I’m too far away to adequately respond to whether his “provocative” perception matches the reality around his Dallas church.
But fortunately for our readers, someone else is. Neil Moseley is on staff at White Rock United Methodist Church and his church is in the same city as Forrest’s. And they have a community garden. And a coworking space. And they are making disciples. Inconceivable! So when Moseley wrote a reply to Forrest on Facebook, I got permission to share it with the HX community.
Enjoy! (section titles are from the editor)
About Community Gardens and Privileged Megachurches
I am the Director of Community Engagement at White Rock UMC.
We have a community garden & a coworking space.
And we have a 2017 bake-off. And we have a thing called New Vinyl Mondays & book studies of Bonhoeffer and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
And we talk about where we stand on homosexuality, mental illness, public education, immigration, the death penalty and the like from our pulpit because people should know where their pastors stand on important issues.
For all our brothers & sisters wrestling with the realities of life in and commitment to dying churches, small churches, neighborhood churches, scrappy churches: there is hope for new life & it doesn’t require millions of dollars from a megachurch; and it might very likely require a little unorthodoxy.
Working in a dying church is hard. I have worked in thriving churches, and, well, that’s hard too. There’s always pressure. There’s always more work to do. There’s always another Sunday, another hospital visit, another funeral. There’s always at least one emailer who hated your sermon. There’s always someone who only wants the Apostles’ Creed.
But when I was asked to join the staff of a dying church, to hypothesize & experiment, to reach out to the neighborhood who thought the building was closed, and to sit with and pray with and study the Bible with this proud, older congregation who was wrestling with real existential & theological questions – I couldn’t have predicted how challenging, rewarding and inspiring it would be.
Success (with help)
I am writing this because a campus pastor I’ve known for several years, Rev. Andrew Forrest, has decided to speak about dying churches, rather out of turn, in my opinion, as his success at Munger Place Church has nothing to do with a dying church.
His employer Highland Park United Methodist Church acquired a beautiful, old church property (Munger Place United Methodist Church) in a very diverse part of Dallas – a huge church building without a congregation – to reimagine and repurpose for the Gospel and for the neighborhood. And that is just what they’ve done. But the acquisition of the property and initial funding, and proclamation of the Word for that matter, was not solely Andrew’s responsibility.
Andrew cites growth & success at the new megachurch campus in an old church building to speak to dying churches – churches that still have a congregation that hope to find new life in their neighborhoods.
However, Andrew was given:
- A position of campus pastor that did not require weekly preaching since the very successful preacher of the contemporary worship service at the mother church would be recorded and replayed at this campus every Sunday;
- A beautiful, historical but newly remodeled, updated space (over $3 million renovation);
- A space without an existing congregation with its time-honored traditions, good & bad habits, preferences, history, pride, fears, doctrines, etc.
- A committed launch team from the mother church to ensure that all events were well attended;
- A tech, custodial, web design, graphic design, video, pastoral care, etc. support from the mother church;
- A no expectation of financial sustainability for the short term
So, I just have to ask: how many dying churches have access to all that?
I don’t want to diminish what has happened at Munger. It’s quite remarkable. Not everyone could have taken those resources and done what Andrew & the Munger Church congregation have done (let me be very clear about that).
But this article seems to suggest a single way forward, a single corrective step for all dying churches – a commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy. I think the list of resources available to the new megachurch campus demonstrates that there’s a little more involved in Munger’s faster-than-expected success than preaching orthodoxy.
And that’s really what Andrew is after in this article, I think, suggesting that orthodoxy is the way forward for all churches healthy or struggling. But it’s a tad disheartening, to cast aspersions at church leaders in smaller, less affluent congregations who attempt to connect to folks in ways other than a top-shelf worship experience that they can’t afford…all in order to make a statement about orthodoxy.
Scrappy for the future
Dying churches are scrappy, just ask anyone who has tried to close a church. And luckily, the work at my own dying church, White Rock UMC (about 5 miles further east into East Dallas than Munger), and my conversations with other dying congregations suggest that there are many ways forward, both ancient & brand new, being tried by innovators of all kinds in every kind of context.
I congratulate Andrew & Munger Place Church on their success. I congratulate Highland Park UMC on all their success in setting the stage for what God is doing through Andrew & the Munger Place Church congregation as they have continued to build.
I just want Andrew to know that the resources involved in repurposing the old Munger Place United Methodist Church aren’t available to every small, dying church out there, and he should acknowledge that privilege rather than oversimplifying Munger’s success and his success as a leader.
A whole lot of folks in dying churches can garden though, and a packet of tomato seeds costs about 75 cents.
Neil Moseley is the Directory of Community Engagement at White Rock UMC. Click here for his bio.
As longtime readers know, I believe being provocative has a place in online conversation.
But as the above shows, if your calculated provocation is about a subject you don’t know enough about…then perhaps don’t be provocative in the first place.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and your shares on social media.
I love this response. Thank you for reprinting it.
As someone who does church revitalization for a living – I love that we are having “provocative” discussions about it! Thanks for bringing it to light!
The life of a church and the depth and impact of its disciple-making is not so much measured by the slickness of its programs or preaching; or the size of its membership, but instead by its willingness to take risks in connecting with and being in ministry and relationship WITH others in the surrounding community; many of which might not even step inside the doors of the church. Big fancy buildings, slick glitz and glimmer worship experiences may draw the Sunday crowds, but what of the rest of the week? I serve a United Methodist Church located on the suburban fringe of a large city in Louisiana. Our average worship attendance is 90 on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t responding to the great commission of Christ and impacting lives the lives of thousands in our community by offering the Gospel message in a variety of ways. And yes, recently we did start the beginnings of a community garden with the hopes and vision that it will be a means to connect with many lower income families in the neighborhoods surrounding the church. The point is that BIG and sophisticated doesn’t always translate to disciple-making and fulfilling the great commission when it comes to being a vital and alive church. The church I serve is far from a “dying’ church. It is alive with the Spirit of Christ as it continues to take risks for the sake of the Gospel in moving toward being an outside in church instead of an inside out church.
Wow! There is a lot i could comment on here, but I will focus on a min-communication between the two authors first. The second author in his response mis-interprets the first authors comments about making disciples as a commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy. I dont think you can put an equals sign between the two.(Especially given the current turmoil in the UMC. As an outsider, I have to ask, “Can you all agree on anything?”)
However, I do much appreciate the second author’s response. Making disciples does not mean sending people to theology 101. The theology is important, but for most people it happens in/with regular life. Sacrificial love is much more powerful a concept when a parent is cleaning up bodily fluids at 3AM…or writing the checkbook down to $0.23 so that the kiddo can go to the doctor, or camp, or…, or…
So, maybe the most radical, forward-thinking thing a congregation can do is turn the south lawn into a community garden…so that the ground is ready for the Master Gardener can grow something new…new relationships, new community, new opportunities to make disciples, new life in the old bones….
(For the record, I have a BS in Theology and I am not doctrinally orthodox. I am a sacramental Dispensationalist…orthodoxy went out the window a long time ago.) Now I am off of Facebook to go get my container garden ready to plant, Seriously!
I don’t think there’s a miscommunication, just a quote that didn’t make it into the excerpt. Forrest goes on to say, “The bitter irony of the dying mainline churches in America is that they are all moving away from orthodox Christianity. And the more they move away, the faster they die.”
Julie A. Arms Meeks
This was/is a perfect response. I’m really glad you shared it.
Andrew’s point in his initial comments were that the church’s first purpose, as stated clearly by the BoD, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. There is nothing else more important. I expect if others clearly understood his remarks that they would see he isn’t criticizing gardens as much as he is prioritizing discipleship. After all, Jesus did say, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations …” (Matthew 28:19.) The is a clear Wesleyan heritage in creating ministries that help meet the needs of many people, such as clothes closets, food banks, and even community gardens. Yet each of those ministries serves to help accomplish the main task of creating disciples. If I am going to show the love of Christ to someone who is lost, I am happy to help feed, cloth, and help them gain education. By doing so I remove barriers that have kept them from seeing the love of God. Yet the reason I do so is out of the hope that they may accept real life in Jesus and gain salvation, thus becoming a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. I believe that is the intent of Andrew, and I don’t believe Neil really grasped it. I also don’t believe Andrew was pushing orthodoxy as much as he was talking about the primary task of the church to create disciples.
Hi Brad, I agree with your comments on the relationship between messages and work. But I’m not sure you are being clear that Andrew clearly thinks a thriving progressive church with a community garden is actually dying.
Andrew says these quotes elsewhere in the article:
Combined with the above, his clear message is that message trumps methods, without acknowledging the money, resources, people (which are all methods) that prop up his message.
Message and method both matter, but if you cannot celebrate diverse approaches to serving people just because they believe differently, then you’ve drank too much of your own koolaid and called it Communion.
I attend a church in Mesquite, Texas. St.Stephen UMC. about 4 years we did a study and sent representatives.called “Small Church Initiative” our church is not dyeing,our Congregation is aging and we have very few young families. The study helped us to find ways to be inviting, reorganize programs that overlapped and define what mission we would do most of all we will make disciples of all for the transformation of the world.
Gloria Voorhees Thomas
Bravo to both Forrest and Neil. Churches, like families, are different and different approaches are needed for them to thrive. Both are serving the community around them. Communities have different needs and different abilities. Supportive, not competitive.
Perhaps people such as Andrew need to be reminded that one way to “make disciples for the transformation of the world” is to engage them in acts of discipleship, so that when they come to ask others with whom they are working, “Why are we doing this?”, their fellow disciples can give them the “orthodox” message that “Jesus has done so much for me, and he told me that if I do good for the least of his sisters and brothers, I’m doing it for him.” If that isn’t “orthodox” enough for them, then maybe they need to rethink what “orthodoxy” is really all about, since orthopraxy and orthodoxy are two sides of the same coin.
“I come to the garden alone…and He walks with me, and He talks with me.” In order to disciple, one must connect to others. Why not in a community garden, where we can perhaps be attuned to listening more clearly than in other settings?
I liked what you had to say about community gardens. I made a similar point in a recent post (April 24th, 2017). A local news article told of a craftsman who donated his collection of woodworking tools to a local tool library. I asked why church’s are not doing things like this more?
I’ve been deeply convinced that the Open Source community has some insights for Christianity – which has been so influenced by politics and corporate business culture. In my blog I hope to explore interesting and useful connections between Christianity, Open Source, and Complexity Science. I’ll be reading your blog. It’s nice to see someone make a similar connection.
Great article! I want to spread it far and wide. I just finished a book on church gardens/agriculture (Harvesting Abundance: Local Initiative of Food and Faith) and have an example in the book from Our Savior Episcopal Church and Community Gardens on Jim Miller Road in Dallas. Small and dying? Not at all! Has an incredible garden ministry that includes chickens, bees, community garden plots, etc. It works with a variety of community organizations with next to no paid staff. I think that the good people of Munger UM should head over to Our Savior and learn about food, faith and the good news Our Savior shares in their community.
Jesus prayed in the Garden in Gethsemane. Many churches are dying without gardens?? Many churches are dying and have always been othodox and never had a garden.