In this interview series, I’ve been talking to pastors at four of the churches on the 2016 list of top 25 fastest growing large United Methodist churches in the U.S. My team at The Unstuck Group has had the privilege of serving these churches. I thought it would be interesting to ask their insights about why their churches are growing despite an overall trend of decline in the UMC and a lower frequency of attendance even by committed members that so many pastors are reporting.
You can read the first three interviews here:
Here’s the last interview in this series:
Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee
Pastor Stephen DeFur
TONY: Why do you believe your church is experiencing a strong growth trend over the last five years, despite the decline we’re seeing on average in the UMC?
STEPHEN: I think there may be a number of factors that have lead to our recent growth. People have bought into our vision of “Loving people into a relationship with Jesus to change the world.” We teach it, preach it and talk about it constantly to ensure that the vision is being ingrained into the hearts of our people.
This has led us to make some significant strategic changes: We radically decreased the number of programs so that we can focus on doing a few things with excellence. By sinking our roots deeper into a handful of ministries, we have built a strong relationship with our city.
We fully embrace the concept of people, taking “next steps,” which has intensely personalized the individual faith experience. That means professions of faith, baptism, connecting in small groups and finding creative ways to give our lives away have become primary drivers for how we accomplish our mission.
Finally, we focus on people we have not met yet. We try to always think of someone who is not in a relationship with Jesus first. The way we communicate, the songs we sing, the way we interact with the public on every level… it is without pretense or assumption. And as a result, over time, we have seen a steady increase in unchurched folks showing up for church.
TONY: What are your thoughts on the shift so many pastors are seeing in frequency of attendance to weekend services, even by committed Christians?
STEPHEN: I think attendance is one measure of church health, but there are several others that may carry even more weight. The mission of the local church is no longer building-centric. Moving people from serving in a ministry sponsored by the church to being the hands and feet of Jesus in their daily lives will be important.
TONY: How do you and your team measure church health?
STEPHEN: Average attendance and financial health are only factors to be considered. We also look at several other indicators of our health and future.
Are people taking next steps? Are we seeing adults professing their faith in Jesus? Are they then taking that decision public and getting baptized? Are people getting connected in small groups? Are we seeing increasing numbers of people finding ways to give their lives away through service?
In addition… are we meeting regular attenders’ friends? Are we connecting with unchurched people on a regular basis? Are we seeing tangible evidence of people finding freedom in Jesus? Are marriages being restored? Are people finding freedom from addiction? Are parents having deeper conversations with their kids? Are we hearing stories of people finding courage to live their faith at work or school?
It seems to me that the church should broaden its perspective on the metrics we use to gauge health and vitality. I think this need will only increase as the years pass by and our culture continues to change.
TONY: How would you encourage pastors who are experiencing a trend of lower average worship attendance?
STEPHEN: First, you are not alone. Being a leader is one of the most difficult tasks. It takes courage, trust and faith to lead God’s people! Changing the culture of a local church is unimaginably difficult.
It’s the exact challenge I faced myself… Do we want to be a part of a movement that systematically changes the world? If so, what am I willing to give up, change or adopt to make that happen?
For most of my life, the church has been (at best) a collective of people who share similar interests and who like to get together on the weekends. It has been devoid of any real, tangible movement of the Holy Spirit and therefore, the world has passed it by! The church must get back to being a biblically functioning entity that seeks to reach those outside its walls with the one message the world desperately needs to hear: Jesus brings freedom, redemption and real life.
It will require the very best we have to offer; the sacrificing of what we are familiar/comfortable with; a deep dependence on the Holy Spirit to do what God needs us to do.