An ongoing Harvard University study that began in 1938, has concluded that “People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected.” In other words, humans are wired for community.

Yet, a growing number of articles are indicating that Americans are increasing lonely and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. In a book written back in 2014, entitled The Vanishing Neighbor, by Marc Dunkelman, the author points out that people typically have relationships in three basic spheres–their families and close friends, their neighborhoods and communities, and more broadly with people who share their common interests. He says that it is in the middle group that the most significant drop in relationships has occurred. People aren’t interacting at the local level like they once were. They tend to relate more distantly, using social media, with like-minded folks. As a result, there are weakening bonds within neighborhoods and a growing level of loneliness.

This growing sense of loneliness, lack of meaningful relationships, and vanishing sense of neighbor all play right into the mission of the church, into the meaning of Christmas. The Message paraphrase of John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” That is what happened at Christmas. Immanuel. “God with us.” Today Jesus becomes incarnate through us being in the world, in our neighborhoods, relating to others. And what better vehicle for this to happen than through the church and fresh expressions of church?

In a recent article Thom Reiner, church researcher and writer, predicts that neighborhood churches will become a movement in 2022. He says defines a neighborhood church as “a congregation that is laser-focused on ministering to a specific geographical area typically described as a neighborhood.”

So, this Christmas and in 2022, let’s take our churches into their communities. Let’s be laser-focused on ministering with our neighbors. Let us build relationships that develop into life-giving friendships. Let us share the love of Christ, the love Christ showed us when he came in the flesh as the baby Jesus.

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

What if the pandemic has no end? What if living with Covid is our new normal? How do churches live in such a world? What have we learned so far that we can apply going forward? Well, when it comes to weekly worship services, one learning is that taking a “both-and” approach is by far the best approach–both in-person and online worship.

A recent study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicates that those churches that have offered this both-and option have seen their weekly participation increase by 4.5% since the beginning of the pandemic. On average these churches have actually grown! On the other hand, churches offering only one option–either in-person or online–have experienced a decrease in average weekly worship of between 7 and 16%.

This past March the Indiana Conference hosted a workshop led by Jason Moore entitled, “Both/And,” emphasizing the importance of churches offering both in-person and online worship opportunities. This coming February 2, 2022, from 10am-11:30am (Eastern), Jason will be back with a follow-up webinar “Both/And To Be Continued.”

In the meantime the Conference has also enlisted Cathy Townley, worship training expert, to work with churches that are launching in-person and/or online worship in order to reach new people for Christ. The next training for in-person worship is scheduled for January 15, 2022, 9:00am-3:30pm (Eastern), and will be offered virtually via ZOOM. This training is free but is limited to the first six churches to register. It is required for churches seeking to apply for $5,000 worship matching grants. Grants to launch online faith communities are also offered. The required training for these grants is also led by Cathy on an as-needed basis. For information about the Jason Moore or Cathy Townley trainings, contact me at ed.fenstermacher@inumc.org.

The reality is that 84% of Indiana Conference churches experienced no increase in their average weekly worship attendance the nine years prior to the start of the pandemic. The pandemic appears to have accelerated this decline. Cathy Townley believes that if a church’s worship services are five to seven years old, then it’s time to start a new service. And she believes that all such efforts must consider both in-person and online options.

Why is this so important? Not simply to keep our churches from declining, but much more importantly to carry out our church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation the world. You see, it is far more likely that a church will reach unreached people through a new worship service than through its existing services, and a growing percentage of the population will only be reached online.

So, what is your church going to do? What’s your church’s next step?

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

Many churches in the Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church are emptier. Although most churches have returned to in-person worship, many of their attenders have yet to return. What is going on?

According to Barna Research, in 2011 42% of the U.S. population reported attending church weekly. Right before the pandemic began, that figure had dropped to only 29% of the population. All that’s to say that the trend was already in a negative direction prior to the start of the pandemic. And since then, the decline appears to have sped up. According to a recent article, Barna says that since the pandemic began, nearly a third of practicing Christians have dropped out of church–neither attending in person nor online–at least for the time being. In many ways, this fall-out of worshipers mirrors the fall-out of those in the workforce. Why is this? A Gallop poll in 1975 reported that 68% of the U.S. population had a great deal of confidence in organized religion, that figure has dropped to 36% by the start of the pandemic. This disenchantment with church, of course, is only one factor. No doubt there are others… The fact that more faithful generations of church attenders are dying off due to old age? Lingering safety concerns about being in crowds due to the virus? Members’ anger at their church’s decision to require (or not require) masks? The fact that a significant part of the population is suffering from trauma, grief, and loss due to Covid-19 and for whatever reason they have chosen to hunker down alone?

Whatever the reason, it has significant negative impact. Not only for the churches due to loss of revenue and manpower. And not only for the churches’ communities that lose the positive impact and influence of the church. But also the individual members. They not only lose the positive spiritual impact that their churches bring, but they actually have negative physical consequences. In the recent article in Christianity Today, entitled, “Empty Pews an American Health Crisis,” by Tyler J. Vanderweele and Brendan Case, we learn of the following negative impacts on those who have dropped out of church: non-church attenders are 29% more likely to become depressed, 50% are more likely to divorce, and they are five times more likely to commit suicide. One study cited even shows that a significant percentage of health workers who didn’t attend church had a higher likelihood of dying earlier than health workers who are church attenders.

What can we do about this drop in church attendance aside from praying? Obviously we need to work extra hard at maintaining relationships with those who have dropped out. We also need to consider ways to take our churches outside their walls to where people live, work, and play. The Methodist and Anglican churches of England have being doing this through a model of missional outreach called Fresh Expressions for the past fifteen years with significant success.*

So what would you suggest? What are you going to do?

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

*There is a two-hour webinar on Fresh Expressions being offered for Indiana Conference lay and clergy on November 4th, at 7pm (Eastern). To register click on Becoming Church.

In the valley of dry bones…

Posted: September 8, 2021 by efenster in Uncategorized

This morning’s scripture for my devotions was God showing the prophet Ezekiel the valley of dry bones. What a sight! I know many church leaders right now feel as though they are in the midst of a dry-bones chapter in their ministries. Just listen to a few comments that pastors shared with Church Development…

o   This time can be compared with the aftershocks after an earthquake.  Covid was the earthquake.  Sometimes the aftershocks can be damaging too.  We are hoping that this isn’t another earthquake.

o   It has been a time to figure out how to keep people hopeful and still recognize when we do fall apart that what we have gone through is like a joined trauma and we need to find some space and find God through the midst of that. 

o   Covid has been a profoundly disruptive experience for us as a nation and it has revealed divisions that are terrifying, scary.  We don’t know yet what this will do to the church. 

o   When I am asked how large my church is I say, “I don’t know”.  This pandemic has altered people’s lifestyles and we don’t know who will come back.

o   Many of us want to be on the “back to Egypt” committee.  It feels like Covid forced us off the ranch and we’ve been wandering and wandering.  For a while we got to see the ranch again and now it is fading into the distance.

I’m sure that if you’re in ministry, you can relate to many of these comments. It is a tough, tough season of ministry.

As I think about the dry bones, I can’t help but think of the significant decline in the vitality of our churches prior to the pandemic. Not only have scores of churches closed since the Indiana Conference was formed in 2010, but 84% of the remaining churches have failed to increase their weekly average worship attendance by a single person over the past ten years. Our bones–and the bones of many, many non-UM churches as well–are dry. They’re tired and weary. Living in a society that is increasingly secular, plus doing ministry during a pandemic, adds to the challenge and discouragement.

But there’s hope! The good news is that God has the power to bring new life into old bones–even in the valley of Covid! In Ezekiel 27:5, God says, “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.” These bones can live again, move again, and even thrive!

So what do we need to do? I’m certainly not an expert, but here’s what comes to mind… First, maybe we start by not doing, but by simply being. Acknowledge the state in which we find ourselves and our churches. Allow time for lamenting, working through our grief, crying… Be still and breathe in the breath of God. Let the Holy Spirit renew, empower, and resurrect us.

Second, we need to remember our callings, to remember our marching orders. For me, that’s helping our Conference churches carry out their mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There are many other wonderful, important and worthwhile issues competing for my attention and our churches’ attention, but if any of them replace our mission, we will find ourselves back in a valley of dry bones. And the possibility of a resurrected army of vital, vibrant churches will likely be fleeting.

Third, we need to learn how to navigate this wilderness in which we find ourselves. In addition to the Bible, I’ve found the following to be helpful: Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory, by Ted Bolsinger, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in Liminal Season, by Susan Beaumont, and a classic entitled, Managing Transitions, by William Bridges. Next month Doug Anderson, from our Church Development team, will be leading a two-part webinar on the concepts from this book especially tailored for those of us leading during this dry-bones moment.*

So, if you also find yourself in the valley of dry bones, what is your next step? One of the above? Something else? Please share your thoughts, they may be just what someone needs to hear. And whatever your next step, please join me in praying that God will bring us all new life and resurrection!

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

*This this the first in a series of webinars that Church Development will be offering under the title “Navigating Our Wilderness.” For details, contact me at ed.fenstermacher@inumc.org or look for publicity from the Indiana Conference.

The official mission of The United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Yet, most Indiana UM churches struggle to make disciples. Many do an excellent job of serving their communities but fall short when it comes to disciple making. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul exhorts Timothy to pass on the Good News that he received from Paul, to others, who will in turn share it with others. This an example of four generations of disciple making–disciples who make disciples who make disciples who make disciples.

Brian Phipps, founder of Disciples Made, has found that once a church has 3rd and 4th-generational disciple making happening, a multiplication movement is ignited in that church. So could such a movement happen in one of our United Methodist Churches in Indiana? We at Church Development believe the answer is “Yes!” In fact, pastors from ten Indiana UM churches this past year have been trained by Brian and Disciples Made in a process our Conference refers to as Multiplication Network Track 2. (Catchy name, right?) It is a grand experiment to see if the Disciple Made’s model can work within our churches. (It’s been very successful in other church settings.)

The initial results are looking promising. For example, one of the ten churches, Fishers UMC pastored by Rev. Mark Ellcessor, launched two disciple-making groups during Track 2. And now he anticipates six more groups launching later this year. The model is designed so that leaders of new groups come out of the disciple-making groups. Next year the six groups will multiply to one to two dozen groups, and by the fourth generation there will be dozens more!

If you’d like to hear more about Track 2 or the disciple-making process from Disciples Made, which is called Followers Made, consider attending one of these free one-hour information sessions.

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

Track 2 Info Session, either June 24 or July 8, both from 10-11am (Eastern).  ZOOM link:  https://inumc.zoom.us/j/91432047950

Followers Made Info Session, June 30 or July 12, both from 7:30-8:30pm  (Eastern).  ZOOM link:  https://inumc.zoom.us/j/99403321029

Is your church too white?

Posted: April 16, 2021 by efenster in Ideas, Information
Tags: , ,

One of the pillars of Kingian non-violence is the idea of the beloved community. We get a glimpse of that in Chapter 7 of the Book of Revelation, which describes a great multitude of every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and the Lamb, praising God. However, it’s more than just people of different ethnicities coming together to worship. It’s creating a community where all people feel included and have a sense of belonging.

Do you long to see such a community? Does your church reflect that type of community? Unfortunately for many, the answer is no. Churches continue to be one of the most segregated organizations in America. Why is this and how do we change it?

A recent webinar entitled, “Are Multiethnic Churches Succeeding,” by Christianity Today, provides some answers.* First, one of the panelists points out that, for the most part, the church in America was started by white colonizers and slaveowners. This resulted, in large part, in the segregated churches of today.

So, what do we do to change this? Here are some ideas that were discussed…

  1. We need to acknowledge the sin that is inherent in our homogeneous churches and repent.
  2. We need to acknowledge that the problem is systemic and address the sin found in our very systems.
  3. We need to remind ourselves of how diverse the original church was, examine our church’s history, and develop lived experience with multiethnic churches.
  4. We need to engage in literature, theology and scholarship that is not rooted in white Western culture. If we’re not taking seriously the perspectives of oppressed  people and their understanding of God, we must ask ourselves why?
  5. When a racial incident happens (e.g. the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright), pastors must speak out to their constituents and communities and not be silent. Non-whites are looking for white people to say, “I see the suffering, pain and marginalization,” and to empathize. We need to stop protecting our white constituents from being “troubled” over racism; non-whites live with such trouble all the time.
  6. We need give up our desire for efficiency. Multiethnic churches are not efficient, but are slow, confusing and messy.
  7. White supremacy is a macro system that everyone is invested in. We live in a culture where white is best, right, and the norm. People are valued by how well they support this and everyone buys in. It affects how a pastor should dress, how long to preach, what kind of music to use in worship, even what kind of food to serve.  Congregants of color are affected by this bias too.  A pastor of color pays a racial tax, they start with a deficit, and it takes more time for them to gain respect. 
  8. We must be willing to be uncomfortable. When individuals have a choice, they will pick what they’re most comfortable with–birds of feather flock together! Therefore, change will be difficult. 

So, if you too long for beloved community and the church described in Revelation, what are you and your congregation going to do? What is your next step?

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director for Church Development

*The webinar’s panel consisted of two sociologists (Black and Asian females), a facilitator (Black female pastor) and two pastors of multiethnic churches (Hispanic and White males). I mention their ethnicities and gender simply to convey the diversity of the group.

Ten keys to a thriving church

Posted: March 25, 2021 by efenster in Ideas
Tags: , ,

A pastor recently asked me what the keys are to an effective, thriving church. Here’s my list.

A church…

  1. Is led by the Holy Spirit; leaders must be attuned to the Spirit and have a listening stance–praying!
  2. Is laser-focused on the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world
  3. Values Kingdom over church; when faced with a decision, what’s best for God’s Kingdom trumps what members think might be best for their church
  4. Has an intentional discipling process that leads to 3rd and 4th-generation disciple making
  5. Has a pastor that truly loves the congregation
  6. Has a congregation that truly loves people, all people; whose members are willing to give up their personal preferences in order to make room for people different from themselves
  7. Is focused on empowering people to live out their personal calls to ministry rather than on recruiting church volunteers
  8. Is focused is on sending and releasing “missionaries,” rather than on gathering and conserving attenders
  9. Is outward-focused and engaged with its community, with an intentional desire to reach, love, and disciple those unlikely to come to church; the approach is one of ministry “with,” not “for” or “to”
  10. Communicates well internally and has a simple structure for decision making and leading

What would be on your list?

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

One year ago our world changed forever!

Posted: March 11, 2021 by efenster in Ideas
Tags: , ,

A year ago last night, March 10, 2020, I was in a restaurant in Nashville, TN. I serve on the board for The United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries agency, and I was eating dinner at a table with other board members–no masks, no social distancing, no real concerns about Covid-19. By the time, we left the table that had totally changed.

A student at our table, who was a senior attending Auburn University, received a text saying that he and his roommate must remove all their belongings from their dorm room by the next Friday. He was stunned. Then the television monitor near our table mentioned that flights to Europe were being suspended. The German medical student next to me freaked out because she was to fly home to Berlin after our meeting and was wondering if she would be stranded in the U.S. Another board member serves as Adam Hamilton’s administrator at Church of the Resurrection. He began checking with Adam and his church’s executive team about what the church would do that coming Sunday. And Kim Simpson, in charge of the committee planning General Conference, also at my table, began wondering if General Conference might need to be postponed. When we got up from that meal, we were entering a totally changed world. Little did we realize what the next twelve months would be like.

Since then, we have seen an explosion of churches adapting to social distancing, moving services online, creatively serving meals and observing communion, and coming up with innovative ways of maintaining congregation care. We’ve also seen a growing weariness, especially among clergy, ZOOM fatigue, and a growing desire to return to pre-pandemic business as usual.

Of course, we know that isn’t going to happen. Some say the church has experienced a decade or more of change within a single year. And neither the church nor the world will ever return to the way things were. Len Sweet, United Methodist author and futurist, says that the entire world will now be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This includes church pastors, laity, you and me! Christian Coon, founder of Urban Village UM Church in Chicago, believes that all churches are now church plants. They will be in a sense starting anew. They will be developing online faith communities as well as continuing their in-person congregations. They will likely have some people not return and yet reach new people who are looking for a faith community.

Jesus said that we need to put new wine into new wineskins. Well, this is definitely a new-wineskin moment! So, what will you do? How will you move forward? No doubt we’ll need to give up some well-loved practices and take on some new ones that are unfamiliar. No doubt we’ll need to help our congregation’s grieve and to inspire them to embrace the better future God has in store. I believe the church’s best days are yet to come; yet, those days will look very different from those of the past. Let’s enter them knowing that we’re not alone, that God is leading the way!

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

Bishop Ken Carter

As churches prepare to return to worshiping in their buildings, many church leaders are urging pastors and laity not to abandon the online worship services that they have developed during the pandemic. In talking about his book, Fresh Expressions of People Over Property, written with Audrey Warren, Bishop Ken Carter says, “We can’t see virtual worship as less than worshiping in the sanctuary.” It is necessary for all churches, no matter their size, to seriously consider both-and worship, both in person and online.

The reality is that churches will reach some people only virtually. I have heard many pastors marvel at the numbers of persons viewing their online worship services. Yet, I’ve also heard many pastors longing to return solely to in-person worship, thus eliminating the extra work and complexity of offering online worship too. The Indiana Conference wants to provide churches help not only in continuing their online presence but also in improving both their in-person and online experiences. Jason Moore, worship consultant and author, will be offering a “Both/And” workshop for Indiana United Methodist Church leaders March 16th (6:30pm-9pm Eastern) and an identical workshop March 18th (9:30am-12pm). He will also be meeting with participants one month later for a coaching call.

Jason Moore

Jason Moore says, “Now we face one of the most critical moves in the next iteration of the online worship experience. As we move back into our buildings, we mustn’t return to making people at home observers after talking directly to them for so long. They’ll feel that too.  We also can’t take an approach where we treat the in-person crowd as the studio audience, providing the laugh or clap track, for the people watching at home. Neither of these audiences should feel secondary.  If we fail to think about how to create a BOTH/AND scenario as we go back to in-person worship, we will lose so much of what we’ve gained in these last seven plus months.” To register for Jason Moore’s Both/And workshop, click on March 16th or March 18th.

Cathy Townley

Cathy Townley, another worship consult and coach, recently posted to her Ready2Launch Facebook group, “Carey Nieuwhof has predicted that churches that do not embrace online will not endure post pandemic. I tend to buy into that prediction. Do you? Or does it cause you to roll your eyes and say, ‘Here we go again’…” The Indiana Conference has invited Cathy to take churches beyond online worship. Later this spring, she will be offering a two-session webinar on how to develop your online worship service into a full blown online faith community. How do you develop relationships with your viewers? How you disciple them? What’s an Acts 2 church look like online? More information will be coming about this exciting opportunity.

Through the pandemic, God has given us a wonderful opportunity to reach people who are unlikely to come into our buildings. Let’s not miss this chance to take the church to them both in person and online!

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

Pastors Mark Harmon and Adam Speicher

“If they won’t come to our churches, let’s take church to them!” And that’s exactly what Adam Speicher and Mark Harmon have done. These two pastors of three small churches started a new Fresh Expression called “Bibles, Bikes, Beer, and Bruises.” It’s for persons who like motorcycles and beer and who have experienced bruises in life. It’s for folks who don’t frequent churches for whatever reason, but who are interested in learning about the healing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in a place that is unconventional, where you don’t have to fear of being judged.

Bibles, Bikes, Beer, and Bruises, which launched on Wednesday, February 3, 2021, meets from 6:00-7:00pm every Wednesday at Polsinelli’s, a bar in Logansport. Adam and Mark shared the idea with the bar owner. She attended worship online but never attended in person, so she saw the value in the idea and offered Wednesday nights as a time the group could meet. (Jesus, in Luke 10, refers to someone like her as a “person of peace,” someone who isn’t necessarily a believe but who is receptive and can open doors to make things happen.)

As they prepared to start this new group, Adam and Mark kept wondering if anyone would show up. Adam says they had been praying that God would send us people, hoping for four or five to attend. To their surprise, eighteen folk joined them! It reminded Adam of how true Ephesians 3:20 is… “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”

Every Wednesday night, the group has a topic and the topics are printed on a bookmark that each person receives. (Mark and Adam ordered twenty of them not knowing that would be the exact number of persons at the first gathering!) Adam and Mark saw the bookmark in a catalogue. It has “911 Emergency Numbers” at the top and lists thirty topics on each side. For example, one says, “Feeling down and out? – Romans 8:31.” Another says, “Relational advice? – Romans 12.” They cover one topic each Wednesday night, and Mark and Adam base the following Sunday sermon on the same passage. Wednesday nights help them prepare for Sunday!

Most of those who showed up on Wednesday had attended church at some point of their lives, but no longer or rarely attend now. They came Wednesday because they were invited by church members or saw a flier that Adam and Mark distributed. One person who came doesn’t attend church, yet he brought an unchurched friend along with him. Near the end of their time together, Mark and Adam asked if anyone had prayer concerns and three or four responded. And while they prayed together, the noisy bar became quiet. Even those not actually attending the group were touched! Praise God!

Adam and Mark demonstrate that it doesn’t take a large church to launch a Fresh Expression of church. Adam is pastor of Lake Cicott UMC (20 in average worship) and Twelve Mile Bethlehem UMC (40 in average worship), and Mark is a pastor Wolcott UMC (20 in average worship). It just requires hearts that care for a particular group of people, in this case folks that love bikes and beer and have lots of bruises, and finding perhaps a person of peace. So who is God calling you to reach? Who might be your person of peace?

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director for Church Development

Note: If you’re church is interested in launching one or more Fresh Expressions and could benefit from ongoing training, coaching and encouragement, check out the Godsend Incubator from our denomination’s Path 1. The first thirty Indiana Conference UM churches to register get a scholarship to cover half the participation fee! Visit Godsend Incubator to register or contact Ed for more information (ed.fenstermacher@inumc.org).