Why Churches Should Celebrate Declining Numbers
(Click here to jump right to Episode 26 of the RePLACING CHURCH Podcast with DeAmon Harges and Mike Mather)
At over 3000 members, Broadway United Methodist Church was the largest church in the state of Indiana.
More than 250 kids showed up each year for the church’s thriving summer camp in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Mapleton Fall Creek.
Then, within a short span of nine months, 9 men under the age of twenty-five were shot and killed within a four block radius of the church building.
These three numbers — 3000, 250, and 9 — and the stories they tell span decades. Broadway UMC was a “megachurch” in the 1930s, before the term even existed. After many decades of change marked by the racism of white flight, the 1980s were the heyday for the summer camp, bringing the Rev. Michael Mather attention and praise. But in 1991, Mather says, everything changed as he “did nine funerals for young men under twenty-five years old in the four block radius around [the] church building.”
The violence and death were heavy enough, but when Mather realized that many of the nine victims had grown up in the church’s “successful” summer programming, it made him question everything:
“I realized I never really tried to think about, ‘Is what we’re doing actually being useful?’ We were feeling good about all the stuff we were doing… But if nine young people in a major American city in a four block radius were dying by violence, then maybe we weren’t being nearly as helpful as we thought.”
This stark realization led to a whole new way of being the church in the neighborhood for Mather and Broadway UMC — a movement of listening to neighbors, “[finding] the gifts and talents of everybody in the life of this community, and [celebrating] those gifts in ways that build community, economy, and mutual delight,” according to DeAmon Harges.
Harges, a natural “Roving Listener,” was the catalyst for this movement of making invisible gifts visible, and eventually began to lead Broadway UMC’s ministry of listening in the neighborhood in an official capacity. As he practiced his innate asset-based community development principles, he discovered people with the gifts of cooking delicious meals, baking incredible pies, tutoring struggling students, and so many more. As it turned out, Harges says:
“There was all of this abundance around us and we weren’t even noticing.”
While there are many ways to talk about the dramatic shift that occurred at Broadway UMC in the 1990s, one of the more interesting angles that Mather and Harges allude to has to do with numbers. For a long time, the story of Broadway UMC fixated on numbers like 3000 and 250 — numbers that prioritized the pursuit of successful worship services and programs, numbers that, to use Mather’s phrase, caused him to break his arm patting himself on the back.
But then, at a moment in the church’s long history, it seems that the Spirit confronted them with a new number: the number 9 — a number that represented pain and loss, suffering and exploitation, and the reality that things weren’t the way they’re supposed to be.
It was this kind of number around which Broadway UMC decided to orient their church life and practice. Rather than aiming to increase the numbers of people in worship and summer programs, they chose to focus on decreasing, and ultimately eliminating, numbers like 9 and the violence in the neighborhood it represented.
Of course, their quest to decrease that number actually meant an increase of all sorts of other numbers in the neighborhood — more front porch conversations and laughter around dinner tables, more neighbors expressing and sharing their gifts, and more empowered youth pursuing their hopes and dreams.
These days at Broadway UMC, the painful numbers continue to decline as the culture of listening to neighbors and celebrating their gifts has permeated everything from worship services to church council meetings to summer programs. Their pivot towards focusing on different numbers presents a challenging question for churches:
What if our work as churches became focused on making numbers that represent pain and injustice and violence smaller instead of making numbers related to worship services and programs bigger?
What would happen if your church began to fixate on declining numbers in pursuit of:
fewer violent crimes,
fewer disoriented refugee families,
fewer women sexually exploited in prostitution,
fewer people struggling with heroin addiction,
fewer unhoused neighbors?
Perhaps just like DeAmon Harges and Broadway UMC, you would end up saying, “There was all of this abundance around us and we weren’t even noticing,” and you would end up seeing an increase in “community, economy, and mutual delight.”
Check out Episode 26 of the RePLACING CHURCH Podcast as DeAmon “The Roving Listener” Harges and Rev. Michael Mather join me to share their friendship with us, tell some incredible stories from the Mapleton Fall Creek neighborhood of Indianapolis, and teach us how to listen to neighbors and ask questions that lead to dignity, discovery, and abundance.
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Originally published at RePlacing Church.