If your church attendance is increasing, then you must be doing something right. Right? Pastors and church leaders will disagree about this, but it seems like most people in the pews feel that if participation (attendance & offering) is declining, then there's something wrong. Probably so. The reverse seems to happen too. If participation is increasing or holding steady and gradually increasing, then things are good. When things are bad, we will search for "why?" but when things are good, we make the assumption, "we must be doing something right."
When things are good, we assume that our theology and practice of ministry must be good, or at least "good enough." But what if that's a bad assumption. What if increased participation numbers don't tell the whole story. I think things could get great participation, but still be 'off' or 'wrong'. It seems like we value 'more' than 'less'. Here in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, many times I've heard people from small congregations (which I think 80% or more of our congregations are 100 people or less) complain about being overlooked or not heard or underrepresented. We lift up larger churches as models of ministry, and we set expectations for churches to be "like that." Small churches often feel devalued even though there are a lot of great things going on in those churches. I think that's a cultural value of "more" over "less".
Sometimes I think that if we were really proclaiming the gospel and asking people to live like Jesus, our churches would be getting smaller. Because it's hard to follow Jesus. Who really wants to die? Or be a "living sacrifice"? The more I reflect on what Jesus is asking of me to do as his follower, the more I realize how counter-cultural it is. He may want me to live in a historically "dangerous" urban area so that I have relationships with the under-priveleged and more diverse people. To do that now, would be a great risk to my family. My mother-in-law would hate it. But I still hear Jesus calling me into relationships with people who need to know God's life-changing love, God's world-order-changing love.
I recently finished reading A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd. In it, he says Jesus proclaims a Gospel of Peace, not violence and war. Jesus was hoping to get people to be a peaceful counter-cultural resistance to the Empire's violent abusive power wielding ways. In particular, Zahnd tells a personal story of his father who was a judge. His dad frequently told him not to trust the majority (or the crowd). Sure there's strength in numbers, but might does not make right. I think Jesus taught something similar which he showed by spending more time with people on the margins of society (sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor, sick, lame) than the power brokers. Perhaps, we should question the "majority rules" thinking as well.
Just because participation is up in a church doesn't mean that your theology is right. Just because a church is large, doesn't mean they have it all figured out. Just because a denomination has and is declining doesn't mean their theology is wrong. Just because a denomination isn't declining as fast as others doesn't mean their theology is more right (or less wrong) than others. Just because one church is growing, doesn't mean their interpretation of scripture is better than one who's church is declining. There maybe correlation there, but that doesn't mean causation. Somehow, we need to have the difficult conversations, find agreement where we can on essentials, and show grace and liberty where we disagree, and still work together for the mission of the Church. We can't let The Church be defined by arguing and disagreeing. As the UMC discusses Homosexuality and Gay Marriage and other issues, I hope we keep this in mind. We need to value one another more as God's children instead of saying "God's on my side and not yours."
I also think that local congregations need to keep this in mind when making ministry decisions. Sometimes doing the right thing won't draw a crowd. It might even make the crowd angry (I think Jesus showed us that). And some people will turn away (John 6:66). Ultimately, it's love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), not having the largest crowd or majority voice and vote.
This is important because I'm afraid only the loudest and most popular theological voices get publicized and heard. Those are the ones with the radio talk shows, cable TV channels, feature films, etc. I'm afraid we're missing out on how deep the Bible really is if we only hear one interpretation of it. I'm afraid people in the pews of churches get confused when what they see in movies (like the upcoming "Left Behind" movie) and hear on the radio doesn't jibe with what their pastor teaches. I'm afraid that those pastors are called "false teachers" and their churches called "bad churches," when in actuality they are very much within the historical orthodoxy of The Church and grounded in the best exegetical methods. All of this because it's the popular theology of the day that gets the most publicity. Instead of putting other pastors and churches down for different interpretations of scripture, we should be working together to show people Jesus. We can still discuss our disagreements, but let's not forget "the more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31). Instead of being so certain that your interpretation is the right and only one that you become arrogant and prideful, focus on loving one another because "love covers a multitude of sins."
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?