On Faith

On Faith: Churches must talk numbers to stay relevant

January 14, 2014 

Matt Meyer

Most mainline churches are reluctant to talk about numbers. Like how many new folks joined their ranks during a past year, for example. Or in some churches, how many folks got saved during the past revival meetings.

Some preachers say, “Numbers don't mean everything” or “The church is more than mere numbers of people.”

Then there are others like retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon who have some different thoughts on the subject.

“In my experience those who disparage the revelations provided by numbers are usually those whose churches are in decline. Numbers equal people being reached by the church and any church that doesn't show growth is not fully faithful in participation in the mission of Jesus Christ,” the bishop wrote in Duke Memorial UMC's newsletter.

Willimon, serving as interim pastor at this church until next June, had some other thoughts on the subject in a phone interview.

Put resistance to talking numbers into the context of what has been happening over the past few decades in American churches and you will come away with a frightening realization. Churches do need to pay attention to numbers, he said.

Willimon cited forecasts from a national church consultant who predicts that half of the active churches right now will be closed in 20 years.

Church attendance across the board has declined 20 percent during the past decade and even denominations like Southern Baptist that had seemed to plateau have begun to slip. The United Methodist Church is losing 65,000 per year, he said.

But there's good news, too.

“We have learned a lot about why churches decline,” Willimon said, “and about how to change that trend.”

At Duke Memorial, for example, the numbers are encouraging. The count for last year shows that 55 new members joined the congregation. This is more new members than the church has had in any other year in the past decade, he said.

“Duke Memorial wants to grow and has figured out how to do it,” he said. “I have never been a part of a church with this much energy and determination. This church really gets it. We have long-time members who say 'Let's do it,'”

As part of its ongoing self study and planning for the future, Duke Memorial used services of Conrad Lowe, a nationally known church consultant, who led a two-day event last week for church leaders and clergy.

Willimon summarized some of the consultant's suggestions. These are ideas that any church can use:

• Get in touch with urban Durham, the young and innovative.

• Get out into restaurants, bars and coffee houses.

• Claim the church's neighborhood.

• Attract young couples with a booth to hand out water at the Farmers Market.

• Go to Drag Bingo at the armory, the hottest ticket in town.

• Make your church facility available to groups like the Mobile Market or a new congregation of 20-somethings.

• Have a pastor who lives in the neighborhood.

A stained glass window in the sanctuary at Duke Memorial is of John Wesley after he got kicked out of the Anglican Church for not being orthodox. With no place to preach, Wesley went into the church graveyard, got on his father's tombstone and preached.

“This is amazing,” Willimon said. “The purpose of the church is to be out there, not in here. This church has it in its genes and we need to reclaim that.”

Another piece of good news at Duke Memorial, Willimon said, is that 200 children come to the church every day in the weekday school.

“The church needs to spend time getting to know these parents, many of them are new in Durham and don't have a church,” he said.

One of the things most churches do is for members to invite newcomers to worship. The church consultant told Duke Memorial that the most effective invitations to church, invitations that get results, come through new members. A tip any church can try.

Drummer to visit ERUUF

Matt Meyer, a nationally known musician and organizer, will lead two worship services and direct a drumming workshop on Sunday at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 4907 Garret Road.

He will lead worship services at 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. titled “Power, Justice and Love: A King Day of Reflection.”

As part of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, attendees are invited to explore the ongoing struggle for racial justice. They will sing out a vision of the promised land and celebrate the life of a modern Moses. All are welcome.

A drumming and spirituality workshop is set from 1:30 to 3 p.m. This is a chance for people of all skill levels to participate in hands on rhythm-making.

Those who wish to attend should register in advance with the ERUUF office at office@eruuf.org or call 919-490-2575. Participants should bring their own drum.

Meyer, based in Boston, has led hundreds of services for UU congregations across the country. He is a member of the UU Association Council on Cross Cultural Engagement and is a founding board member and resident of the Lucy Stone Cooperative in Roxbury.

A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he has studied in Cuba, Ghana and Central America. He is an artist of percussion, knowledgeable and experienced in a variety of styles including Latin-jazz, Brazilian, folk, funk, hip-hop and pop.

The performance is part of Eno River's third annual “Thirty Days of Love” campaign to encourage members to commit to at least one hour of service to area social justice ministries or agencies. The effort begins Jan. 20 on the MLK Day of Service.

Israel bike ride

Two members of Beth El Congregation, Adam Goldstein and Bob Gutman will discuss their recent Israel Ride, a bicycle trip for peace through the Negev Desert.

The discussion is set for 1 p.m. Saturday following Sabbath services and communal lunch at the synagogue.

Their presentation will include details of the bike ride from Jerusalem to Eilat this past November. Also, information on how the Arava Institute for the Environment and the Hazon Institute for Sustainable Food bring together Arab, Palestinian and Jewish students. A surprise visit from a leading Israeli politician will be part of the event.

Also at Beth El: On Sunday, author Ellen Cassedy will speak on her award-winning book “We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust.”

On a quest to connect with her Jewish forebears, Cassedy set off into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania. The result is her book that offers a close-up view of how a post-Holocaust nation explores its Jewish history. She conveys a cautious message of hope with implications far beyond Lithuania.

The event is set for 7 p.m. in the Beth El Freedman Center, 1004 Watts St.

She will be joined by Beth El member Stephen Jaffe, who in his early career set the Yiddish poetry of Vilna poets Avrom Sutzkeyer, Leah Rudnitsky and Shmerke Kacerzinsky to music.

Last May he visited Kiovno, Lithuania, his grandfather's familial home, to participate as a judge in the Juventus International Choral Competition.

He will speak on Lithuania's young democracy's search for understanding about the past and cultural pluralism since 1990.

Interested persons welcome to attend both of these events.

Send your faith news to flo.johnston314@gmail.com..

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