"Stop the Decline"
I believe in zero. I know I am a dreamer, an idealist, and a seer of visions. What if zero was our goal? For our Presbytery, having zero membership growth in a year would be an amazing accomplishment. Every year since I have been in this Presbytery, and for many years before that, we have lost members. Indeed, our statistics for 2011will show that we lost 154 members. What would it look like, what would happen, how would it feel like if we stopped losing members? What if the Presbytery, which really means what if each of our churches, decided to name a goal that we stop losing members? What if we stopped the decline, here in our churches, in our presbytery? I am not talking about the whole denomination; I am not talking about the future of the Protestant mainline denominations in America; I am talking about us, each of our congregations, in our pews, every Sunday. What if we said “We want to stop declining?” Is it possible? Are we even able to talk about it?
I know all the responses to this crazy idea. Many will ask me why I am obsessed with numbers. Many will say numbers do not matter. What matters is faithfulness and vitality in ministry. I understand that our calling is about spiritual maturity, about Kingdom growth, about proclaiming Jesus and building relationships. I understand that our goal is about spiritual vitality in our hearts and in our congregations. I get that. I fully agree. I understand that there may be many expressions of spiritual vitality in congregations that are not growing. I understand that a vital congregation is not always a numerically growing congregation. Personally, I have been with many blessed, vital, devout spiritual people while they were dying. I understand that a vital church is not always or necessarily a growing church. But I do believe that every growing church is a vital church. Let us at least talk about growing. Let us name the vision that we would like to stop the decline. Stop the decline. Why not zero. Zero growth would, indeed, be fabulous.
I know all the responses to this crazy idea. All the sort of post-modern, missional, emerging, hyped-up, generous orthodox new leaders out there are going to tell me that membership does not matter. You will tell me that membership is an obsolete idea from the age of the institutional church, which is now gone and obsolete. Many will say that we should not even be talking about membership; we should be talking about discipleship. What matters is not having your name on the active list but taking Jesus into the streets. I understand all that. Indeed, I believe we are making a fast transition from an emphasis on membership to an emphasis on discipleship. But we are not there yet. And this year we are still counting members. And I expect that we will still be counting members next year. So let us count more of them. Counting more members is not going to usher in the Kingdom of God, but, my friends, it would certainly be more fun.
Numbers do not matter; I get that. But it sure does feel good that we had a positive cash flow in our Operating Fund. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that Dan and Alison Siewert had 40 people at the worship service in their home several weeks ago. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that the Presbytery of Carlisle has continued to be one of the top ten presbyteries in shared mission giving. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that we had 645 young people at Camp Krislund last summer. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure does feel good that the Pittsburgh Steelers have won the Superbowl six times, more than any other team. Numbers do not matter, I get that. But it sure feels good that we have built four new homes in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and will be going in April to work on number five.
The Presbytery of Carlisle lost 154 active members in 2011. But actually just one of our congregations cleaned their membership rolls and lost 148 members. Can we as a Presbytery stop the decline? Can we talk about zero membership growth? That seems possible to me. We are very close. But it will only be possible if we start talking about it. It will only be possible if we are intentional about our goals and plans. It will only be possible if we make sure our own church is a place of deep hospitality in every way. It will only be possible if every person who walks into our church is called by name, is welcomed as a beloved child of God, and is spoken with authentically and intimately. It will only be possible if we stop being so resigned to our continuing decline and pray like we have never prayed for Christ to transform our hearts and bless our churches.