On February 9-10, more than 100 North Alabama clergy and laity gathered at the Brandon Ministry Center in Florence for the Growing Healthy Congregations conference sponsored by the Northwest District.
The featured speaker was Dr. Paul Borden, author of the books Hit the Bullseye and a new book Direct Hit. Dr. Borden is Executive Minister of Growing Healthy Churches (formerly American Baptist Churches of the West), which is an association of American Baptist Churches in Northern California and Northern Nevada. Since the mid 1990s, this association went from only 36 of its 200+ congregations experiencing growth to now more than 170 growing congregations. They have now stated a new vision of a double portion which is to not only have growing existing congregations but to plant 300 new growing congregations by the year 2012.
During the two-day conference Dr. Borden shared stories and insights of how he has seen and helped declining local churches become vital, growing, disciple-making congregations.
Growth indicates health; no growth indicates no health, Dr. Borden said.
Using the example of a child he explained how parents know that if their baby is not growing in weight and inches, there is something wrong. Likewise, if a congregation is not experiencing growth, it is not healthy. Borden defined a healthy congregation as one that consistently and regularly makes new disciples of Jesus Christ.
Before he began sharing examples, he first laid out a Biblical vision of the church as a disciple-making body. He explained that God is a missionary God who sent his son Jesus Christ to establish the Church in order to bring people back to God. So he concluded that any church not reaching new people in the name of Jesus Christ is not carrying out the full vision of the Church and is, in turn, being disobedient.
He also explained one challenge for local congregations is shown in a recent Barna survey. It revealed that 91% of church members said they believed local congregations exist to serve them. Dr. Borden shared how this inward focused, as opposed to an outward, community focus, is part of the disobedience of many congregations.
On Friday, conference attendees included clergy and staff. Borden discussed with them how to be leaders that cast a vision of being outward-focused disciple-making congregations.
Borden explained how it was important for pastors and staffs to learn to exercise leadership behaviors such as passion, courage and flexibility. He also said it is important for leaders to keep growing and resource themselves and be resourced in their growth.
He emphasized that the pastors and staffs role, as described in Ephesians 4, is to equip the saints for ministry. This means staff should help lay people discover and use their gifts and passions in the ministry of the church rather than doing all the ministry of the church.
Borden also explained to pastors that is their job to establish the mission and vision of the congregations. And then not only cast the vision, but create a sense of urgency to energize people to jump on board and work toward that vision.
On Friday afternoon, Bishop Will Willimon joined Dr. Borden for a question and answer time discussing the vision of the North Alabama Conference as local churches being challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ.
On Saturday laity joined the clergy and church staffs to hear Dr. Borden. During the mornings session he discussed the life cycle of a church and how as the life cycle matures the tendency is for congregations to move from being outward focused to inward focused and thus decline. He shared stories and examples of smaller, older congregations who had gone from a dying church with memberships less than 50 to healthy congregations of 300 members or more by intentionally becoming outward-focused, missional congregations.
He encouraged those gathered by saying, The genius of church history is that God likes to bring life out of death.
On Saturday afternoon, a bonus session featured LaDonna Witmer. LaDonna is a writer and filmmaker who lives in San Francisco.
Many people in the North Alabama Conference first encountered LaDonna because of a video testimony called This is Who I Am, she taped at an evangelism conference in 1999 during which she addresses how the Church could best relate to younger generations.
One person who saw the video was Rev. Mike Stonbraker, pastor of Wesley Memorial UMC in Decatur. He shared that her words, haunted him and so he contacted LaDonna and began an email conversation with her. He learned that in the time since that video was made, she had left the church. Over months of conversation they began to share their stories. After revealing he was a pastor he invited, even challenged, her to come and speak with his congregation about her experiences and about how they could best reach younger people who want nothing to do with the church. She finally agreed and also agreed to speak at the Growing Healthy Churches workshop.
During the afternoon session, she shared her story and stories of several of her friends through video interviews. These young adults shared their experiences good and bad with the church. They also shared their thoughts on how the church could reach and serve young people not associated with church. Although, each persons story was different, they all expressed disappointment about how the Church doesnt live up to what they understand Jesus taught it to be. The each expressed a longing for finding a church that was loving, accepting and radical in Christs mission.
LaDonna explained that in her life she separates God and the Church. So she has faith and relationship with God, although Church is not a part of her life. She also shared a story about how in the last year she was able to share her faith and hope with one of her friends going through a hard time in life. That friend eventually accepted Jesus. LaDonna says that is the first time she ever led someone to Christ - something she never did during the time she was involved in Church.
The Growing Healthy Congregations was hosted by the Northwest District whose District Superintendent is Rev. Hal Noble. Most of the conference was organized by Rev. Alan Beasley one of the Assistants to the DS and pastor of Russellville First UMC.