At the recent Route 122
held at the Iowa Conference headquarters in Des Moines, participants learned from each others’ experiences about revitalizing churches to continue the mission of the United Methodist Church. One way to do this is to ask local churches, “Why does it exist as a church, to begin with?”
That is the question Rev. Beth Crissman, district superintendent of the Western North Carolina Conference, and the Rev. Dr. Nancy B.Rankin, superintendent of the Northern Piedmont District of North Carolina, looked to answer in their Route 122 workshop and book of the same name
called “Choosing the Faithful Path.”
“Why we exist is because we are fulfilling the call and commission of the church,” said Crissman.
“Choosing the Faithful Path” is a 12-week assessment process created by Crissman and Rankin based on the foundational scriptures found in Matthew 22, 25 and 28. The scriptures tell the Church to make disciples, to baptize and to teach. The process also keeps in account ¶ 213 from the Book of Discipline about assessing a local church’s potential and ¶ 201 and ¶ 204 that talks about the purpose and function of the local church.
“All that sums up are minimal expectations,” Rankin. “So many churches think it’s multiple choice like they’ve hit one out of seven.”
The process is formatted in a way that a district superintendent or a trained facilitator can go into a church and help a church alongside it, rather than telling congregants what needs to be done. Ultimately, it’s up the pastor and church members themselves to create a plan and execute the plan.
“Instead of someone coming from the outside saying this is what you need to do to revitalize, this is really designed to empower leaders of the church,” said Crissman.
She acknowledged each local church has a different potential and inner dynamics. Early on in the process, Crissman and Rankin stress that a church’s assessment needs to be based on asking who are their neighbors, what do their neighbors need and how the church is uniquely able to respond.
The process includes Bible study sessions rooted in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, aligns with biblical and Wesleyan expectations of what is required of a church, step-by-step guides for developing a plan of action and most importantly, it reviews objective data about the church and the community.
Crissman said churches fail to look at why they continue to do things the same way over and over again. As the United Methodist Church moved from a movement to an institution, she said churches spend so much energy looking at ways to keep the status quo rather than expanding and changing as communities outside their doors change.
“If what we’re doing is to just keep our churches open, then, in essence, we fail,” said Crissman. “We make sure that our why is right, that our why drives what we do.”
And the why should be to make Disciples of Christ. Embracing new communities, new cultures and new traditions help revitalize churches and help continue the mission of the United Methodist Church.
Rankin and Crissman encourage churches to not continually participate in hand-out ministries like free meals and free clothing, but to also sit down with their neighbors and get to know their stories.
Rankin recalled a story of a church with an open basketball court. A group of young men began playing basketball there. Church members did not approve because of the men’s skin color, so they built a fence around the court with no access from the outside. The congregation walled itself off from its neighbors, rather than change with its community. Three years ago, the church closed for good.
“Choosing the Faithful Path” deploys asset-based community development training to help churches engage with their neighbors when they don’t know how. As with all things new and uncomfortable, there is some resistance. But the willingness to embrace those differences is the difference between a vital and growing church and a church that is dying.
“Healthy churches come asking us to ‘please teach us how (to be welcoming to our neighbors), ' and unhealthy ones are saying ‘keep them out,’” said Rankin. “Sometimes you come to a place of death for a refusal of the people right outside.”
Rankin and Crissman have used this approach in North Carolina for the past nine years and have seen success in churches across the conference.
“What we’re doing is the call and commission to what we’ve been sent,” said Crissman. “We are constantly asking how do we do that most faithfully most fruitfully in our current context, which changes over time.”