Upper New York Conference: Underchurched or Overchurched?
In Upper New York Annual Conference we Methodists have one church for every 6898 people. Our churches are not evenly distributed across the population, however; far from it! In some of the most populated areas we have as few as one church per forty thousand people. There are over 300 zip codes where we have no church. At the other end of the spectrum are zip codes where the church-to -population ratio is high. There are thirteen zip codes where we have a church for every one hundred or fewer people.
These figures can be misleading, because zip codes have neighboring zip codes and vary in geographical size. Mapping out these areas however is a good first step in identifying places where new ministry development has potential, and those places where consolidating our resources might be wise. It is prima facie evidence that the church has not kept pace with population shifts. The death of many of our churches in the most populated areas is a sign that we have not kept pace with cultural shifts either.
When considering the ministry potential in any particular place there is a lot to take into account. It is not as simple as dividing up the population among the Methodists. What are the prevailing cultures in the area? What churches of all kinds are there? How are they doing? What types of ministry are taking place? Who is not being reached? What are the social, political, and financial realities in the area? All these determine the kind of ministry that has potential in an area.
Of equal importance: What resources do we have to bring effective ministry to the area? Who do we have to give leadership to the development of new ministry there? How will the leaders be trained, coached, supported, connected, and held accountable?
Whether the task is to reconfigure places where there are not enough people to sustain our churches or to fulfill our mission by bringing the gospel to places where there are not enough churches to reach the people, these same questions apply.
Our denominational motto is “Rethink Church.” Rethinking entails both self-examination and context evaluation. If our real intention is to “be God’s love with our neighbors in all places,” then we must start with the consideration of who those neighbors are and how we would best develop relationships with them.
Our natural tendency is to start with the preservation of the status quo. We have been trained this way. Laurence J. Peter has said: “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” We need to regain credibility and relevance in the culture, and we will not do that without first taking the culture seriously. Rethinking threatens to radically change the way our church does just about everything. If you do not find this unsettling, you have yet to grasp what it means. We church folk have a curious comfortable little niche that we need to give away to the world, so that people very unlike us may find the truth of the mission we are on. It is time to give the church back to God; to put the mission ahead of our personal preferences; and to commit to the call to create new places for new people and to revitalize existing congregations in whatever way is best for the church universal.
There is no one program, no single approach, that will bring us to realize our potential. Recreating our church culture is incredibly complicated and difficult work. We need help identifying the links between who we are and whom we are called to serve. It takes time and dedication to the mission. It takes an openness to ideas and practices we have not previously encountered. It means aligning all that we do with the mission; eliminating whatever stands in the way, and whole-heartedly supporting and structuring around those things that connect us with the strangers around us. If we do not do this, and do it well, and soon, this new conference will be short-lived. Let us not be afraid to admit when we do not know what we are doing. Let us get the help we need from those with specialized training, and more importantly from those populations we are called to reach.
Lauren Swanson is a consultant with Strategic Missional Solutions and is available to help your mission-based organization align with its purpose.