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By Heather Hahn - United Methodist News Service
Bryan Burroughs hadn’t darkened a church door in years when his work first brought him to McKendree United Methodist Church to help the congregation refinance its building.
He found a warm welcome from the pastors and visited again, this time with his wife and two young daughters. The family has been worshipping at McKendree ever since. On Easter 2012, both he and his wife, Andrea Flores, joined the church by profession of faith, proclaiming their commitment to follow Christ. They are more than pew-sitters. Flores helps with the church youth group, and Burroughs has taught financial classes at the church.
“The Holy Spirit led us here,” Burroughs said. “This was the family we were missing. There was a void in my life, and this filled that void and made me complete.”
Burrough’s story is more common than some might think. Even amid frequent news articles about the decline of religious affiliation in the United States, people are still joining United Methodist churches.
That growth is reflected in a report this year that found the percentage of “highly vital” United Methodist churches in the U.S. more than doubled between 2010 and 2012 — from 14.8 percent to 33.9 percent. The same report said 34 percent of U.S. United Methodist churches grew in worship attendance in 2012.
The denomination measures a congregation’s vitality based on four major areas church life: growth, member involvement in the congregation, engagement in the community, and giving.
To be considered “highly vital,” a congregation must be in the top 25 percent of all U.S. congregations in two of the four major areas and cannot be in the bottom 25 percent in any one of the areas. A group of clergy, laity, bishops and agency heads developed this formula working with the consulting firm Towers Watson.
“The doubling of highly vital congregations means that there are more disciples working on justice and mercy ministries, we are making more new disciples, more disciples(are) inviting new people, more disciples are engaging in learning small groups, and more disciples are giving generously to mission,” said New Jersey Area Bishop John R. Schol, a leader of the denomination’s Vital Congregations Initiative, in the report to the Council of Bishops.
The surge in vital congregations is not enough to reverse the decades-long overall trend of declining U.S. church membership and worship attendance. Schol is quick to point out United Methodists must do more, but the improvements do offer reasons for hope.
“As we continue to increase the vitality of our congregations, we will experience a stronger missional church that is making disciples and transforming the world,” Schol told the United Methodist News Service.
So how do churches increase vitality? Churches that are highly vital offer examples others might emulate.