Members of the Lehigh Presbytery Committee on Ministry (COM) and Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) and I attended a Synod sponsored COM/CPM conference on September 16-17, 2019. there were some interesting and helpful presentations about small church ministry, and they all began with statistics about the continuing decline in church membership. Of course, this is nothing new, The PC(USA) has been growing smaller for decades–dropping in membership by about two-thirds over the last 50 years, from a peak of 4.2 million in 1965. More and more, the speakers told us, we are a denomination of small congregations, with almost two-thirds (63%) having fewer than 100 members and 39% with fewer than 50 members. In Lehigh Presbytery, almost half (47%) of our congregations have fewer than 100 members and a third (33%) have fewer than 50 members.
I was hired as a Transitional Leader to help Lehigh Presbytery take some risks and engage in adaptive change. One thing we need to change is the focus on membership as a metric for the success of our churches. Instead, I’d like to focus on the mission and ministry God is calling our congregations to in their communities.
I read a story about six members of a congregation in Memphis, members who still live in the neighborhood where their church is located, who invited some of their neighbors to a meeting at a neutral location, and then essentially asked them, “If you had a magic wand, how would you improve our neighborhood?” Notice that this group of church members did not invited their neighbors to a worship service. They did not try to promote their Christian education program, or even get their neighbors to step onto the church property. Instead, they sought to develop relationships, build trust, and listen to what their neighbors had to say. Eventually, the congregation was invited into a partnership to work on holistic neighborhood transformation. They invited to collaborate with their neighbors around issues such as children home alone after school without adult supervision until late in the evening, concerns about healthy and constructive recreation opportunities for 4th and 5th graders, and issues of blight and safety. Together they created a plan, responding to these concerns as neighbors and partners.
This story doesn’t end with droves of neighborhood people suddenly attending worship and becoming church members. It doesn’t end with any obvious “benefit” to the congregation at all, except this: they are able to be the church God is calling them to be, serving as Jesus’ hands and feet for and with their community. Jesus doesn’t care much about membership. What Jesus really cares about is discipleship.
We will talk more about changing the definition of success, as congregations and as a Presbytery at the September Presbytery Assembly.
Rev. Rhonda Kruse
Transitional Presbytery Leader