“What if?” is a Disney+ series that takes well-known characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and changes one thing to create an alternative timeline, such as “What if Peggy Carter was the one who became Captain America?” Likewise, this series at Hacking Christianity asks “What if” in novel approaches to persistent questions about church growth and vitality. We may recoil at first but might find ourselves drawing nearer to the idea. Take a read on this idea from a guest author and ask yourself…well, what IF?
What if…we quit offering United Methodist Worship?
Rev. Kathy Neary
WE MEASURE WHAT WE DO
Every year the dreaded “annual reports” for churches must be filled out and filed by every congregation in the United Methodist universe. Every year a “hue and cry” is raised about how “average worship attendance” is a terrible metric for measuring the vitality of congregations. It’s funny how this metric only became problematic as our average worship attendance numbers dropped precipitously.
Instead of facing the reality of our decline in worship attendance, we have sought to substitute this metric with other less frightening and more malleable numbers. We now ask churches how many people are served by ministries of the church, like food banks or shelters run out of church basements. These numbers are famously inflated so we can feel good about something (anything) happening in our buildings. The number we really pay attention to is average worship attendance. Measuring average worship attendance is an indication of what we value, what we believe is our purpose, and what we do.
The “average worship attendance” metric measures exactly what we do. The de facto purpose of most churches is to produce Sunday morning worship. Our buildings are designed for this: they are built to center our attention and efforts on this one activity of Sunday morning worship. The primary–almost exclusive–function of a pastor in most churches is to plan and lead Sunday morning worship. When SPR committees are asked what skills they want in a pastor, the number one answer is they want a preacher to deliver effective, engaging, entertaining sermons (I hold out hope that district superintendents ask the follow-up question: why?). A pastor might be skilled in community outreach, administrative work, pastoral care, or evangelism, but woe be unto her if she can’t entertain a congregation for 15 minutes each Sunday morning.
Church budgets reveal the truth of this focus on Sunday morning worship. The two biggest expenses for most congregations are the preacher and the building, which is designed primarily for worship. These facts lead us into a tailspin of despair about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our thinking goes down this rabbit hole: “Our purpose is to produce Sunday morning worship. We measure if we do this well by counting people who attend worship. Our measurements indicate we have fewer and fewer people in worship, no matter what we do. Therefore, let’s stop counting worship attendance. It makes us sad.” We can’t get away from this reality though.
If our purpose is to produce Sunday morning worship, assessing average worship attendance is a great metric for measuring success. The numbers tell us…we are not succeeding.
WE COULD FOCUS ON DISCIPLESHIP GROWTH
I would like to suggest that we go back to asking ourselves what our purpose is supposed to be, and how we might accomplish that purpose. Our purpose is to foster discipleship in people who will then transform the world. We need to be clear about what discipleship is, and how we grow disciples. Lots of possible answers here, but the hard fact is this: Sunday morning worship does not foster discipleship growth of any kind.
Discipleship is defined as a life of deepening our relationship with God and Christ, and living out of that amazing, loving, empowering, transforming relationship with our neighbors. Relationships are built through intimate, honest, open encounters with God and others, such as might happen in small group settings or private contemplation. Relationships are built through shared struggles for justice, such as might happen in direct action campaigns for climate justice. Relationships are built when we give, receive, and honor the stories of each other’s lives. Relationships like these are not built through Sunday morning worship.
If we focus our activities and energy on relationship-building activities and not Sunday morning worship, we might begin to see discipleship growth in our communities.
BE BOLD: QUIT UNITED METHODIST WORSHIP SERVICES
I once suggested at a district meeting, and in front of the presiding bishop, that if people had not been transformed after a lifetime of attending worship at their local church they should quit the church. It did not go over well. I now realize that I should have given that statement a bit of nuance, so here it is: United Methodist congregations should stop offering Sunday morning worship.
I understand that worship does offer us some needed benefits. People can experience the grace of God in a special way, especially during the administration of the sacraments. People can be shaped by and learn from the sharing of a common story. People can learn of current social needs, pray about them, and plan a response. I don’t want to give up on these benefits of worship. But we Methodists don’t seem to be able to do two things well at once: focus on fostering discipleship and have Sunday morning worship. We must prioritize fostering discipleship, so that means we need an alternative for that Sunday morning worship.
The way around this challenge is to send United Methodists to other churches to get their worship fix, and then focus on discipleship growth the rest of the week in the United Methodist gathering place. There is precedent for this approach. In England and the American colonies of the 18th century, the people called Methodists didn’t have their own church buildings. Methodists were not organized into an official church denomination. Instead, the people called Methodists met in small groups, and on Sundays attended a nearby established church, often the local Anglican Church. There they could receive communion, be inspired or terrified by the preaching, and share a bit of fellowship with their non-Methodists neighbors. The real work of growing as disciples occurred outside this Sunday morning worship experience. (Of course, the American Revolution put an end to this arrangement in the U.S., and much to our detriment, Methodists began building their own churches and became “just like everyone else.”)
In many places today there are non-United Methodist churches that offer wonderfully inspiring and uplifting worship, with some even offering good preaching. I suggest people look for a “high church” option if they are seeking a mystical, awe-inspiring, ritual-heavy experience. The people called Methodists should get their “worship fix” on Sunday in another church, and then get back to work on discipleship growth the rest of the week in the United Methodist gathering place.
There will be plenty of opportunities for this work at the local United Methodist gathering place because everyone, the pastor included, will be focused solely on discipleship growth activities. Everyone at the United Methodist gathering place will be focused on being transformed by a deepening relationship with God and Christ, and living out that transformed life for the sake of others.
Kathy Neary is an elder in the PNW Conference. She has served as a campus pastor (Washington State University), as pastor of 6 local church charges, and as a pastor for 2 interim ministry appointments. She is currently the small church consultant for the PNW Conference.
Other entries in this series:
Thanks for reading, commenting, subscribing, and sharing on social media.