As hard as is for me to believe, today is my 20th anniversary as a conference church developer. Little did I realize June 1, 1995, that I would still be at it twenty years later. The task of church development was quite different back then. It was primarily focused on church growth, on attracting people to church. And for the most part it worked, at least initially.
The Church Growth movement had hit its zenith twenty years ago. Lyle Schaller, a hero of mine, was still writing nearly a book a year and was a well-respected speaker, especially in UM circles. The Fuller Institute, Directed by Carl George, was a primary provider of Church Growth resources. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church, just being published, became a key guide.
In the former North Indiana Conference of the UMC, which I served, the conference had just gone through an intentional multi-year church-growth effort called New Generation. It was based on the premise that the Baby-Boom generation would return to churches once they began having children. So it was an effort that encouraged churches to sharpen their hospitality, assimilation of newcomers, worship, and children’s ministries.
The methodology for evangelism was primarily the use of marketing techniques–mass mailings, new-resident mailing lists, and telemarketing. A key resource was Norm Whan’s “The Phones for You!” Scores of United Methodist churches in Indiana dialed the phone to invite folk to attend their churches. The theory was based on the law of large numbers. If you dial the phone enough times, you will get a predictable number to respond to your invitation. That number was about 0.5% for existing churches. That means for every 200 phone invitations, one person would show up to your service. I remember leading the church I had been working for in dialing 18,000 households. I dialed 3,000 myself. We ended up with over 50 first-time, local adult visitors on our target Sunday. Pretty good for an inner-city church that had been declining.
When I began my work, there was a sense that a new spiritual awakening was happening not only in Indiana but around the world. The Berlin Wall had fallen creating a global euphoria of hope. Promise Keepers was filling stadiums around the country. Emmaus Walks were attracting hundreds of Christians. The Christian evangelical movement hit its peak, influencing politics as never before. And here in the North Indiana Conference we continued to experience year-after-year increases in worship attendance. In fact, we experienced an increase each year from 1995 to 2001 with only one exception.
How things have changed! The Fuller Institute went bankrupt, Lyle Schaller stopped writing books and recently died, using telemarketing as an evangelic tool now sounds quaint if not ludicrous, and worship attendance declines each year. True we no longer have resources such as Schaller’s “Parish Paper,” Herb Miller’s “Net Results,” or Win Arns “Growth Report.” But we do have so much more to help us–unlimited articles, studies, and podcasts available through the internet, MissionInsite with a wealth of data on every community in Indiana, and dozens of training opportunities, coaches, experts, etc. You’d think with all these resources we’d be experiencing significant growth…but we’re not.
So twenty years later, why are we where we are? Could it be that God has brought us into a new era, a post-institutional era, where our focus must be on incarnating Christianity rather than simply marketing it? Can it be that God has knocked the wind out of our church-growth sails so that we might focus our efforts on a more biblically-based objective–being the church wherever God places us every day? I believe we’re entering one of the most exciting chapters of Christianity and feel privileged to have the chance to be a part of it. God is clearly doing a new thing! And, as Alan Hirsch says, we are the map makers. We are the pioneers that get to discover God’s “new wineskins.”
Yes, it’s in ways disorienting and even frightening to see such changes in our churches and denomination, yet God is inviting us to be the church in a new way that will help us make disciples and transform the world as never before. So, like Caleb, as he stood with the Israelites at the bank of the Jordan River before crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, may we have strength and courage. May we trust in God as never before and be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The best is yet to come!
— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development