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Deep and Wide: Dimensions of the Renewal of the Church

Renewal is about more than attendance and budgets -- it's about growth in mission, too

If you read The Christian Century, or participate in denominational meetings, or scan the list of book titles in a publisher’s catalog, you know that renewal of the church has become a hot topic. Evangelical and nondenominational churches often discuss church-growth strategies; traditional Protestant denominations talk about church-renewal ideas. It’s not hard to understand why: the so-called mainline denominations have lost members, money, and momentum in recent decades.

Duke Divinity School trains the future leaders of churches and faith-based institutions, and we believe that the renewal of the church is part of the mission to which we are called. We certainly think it is important to maintain the academic rigor of our program, and we value the ways that participation in the broader institution that is Duke University enriches our own work in the Divinity School. But we also think that these things—academic work and university engagement—support our fundamental mission: to train leaders who are shaped by a scriptural imagination for the renewal of the church. We believe that God works through the church, and we want to align our priorities accordingly.

It is important to articulate and describe what we mean by renewal. Are we training the next generation of leaders to focus only on more members and money? The answer is no. As the children’s song declares, “Deep and wide / Deep and wide / There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” We believe that the dimensions of renewal are both wide and deep, and that God is already working in this world to stir people, churches, institutions, and communities to a renewed vision of loving both God and neighbor.

“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”
Church-growth strategies swept through American churches in recent decades. Many a pastor, congregation, or denomination looked with a measure of envy at churches that ballooned from a few dozen worshippers to a few thousand. Some churches became so large that they filled professional sports arenas; others began a multi-site model with one lead pastor presiding over services held in multiple locations. Books were written and seminars were held to instruct churches and their leaders how to grow their church. We might describe this growth in attenders and budgets as the “wide” dimension of church renewal.

But a focus only on having more members (or attenders) at Sunday services or on seeing overflowing church coffers tends to miss the point of why these resources matter for the renewal of the church. Enjoying an increase in worship attendance and receiving financial resources to match budget projections are not ultimate goals. They are penultimate at best. The focus of our Christian ministry is participation in God’s reign in this world by sharing the saving love of Jesus Christ in our individual and communal practices. More participants in worship should demonstrate more people worshipping God and accepting God’s invitation in Jesus Christ to participate with the work of the Holy Spirit. Having more financial resources can and should enable a church to serve outside its own walls. People and money are intended to be resources for the church to serve God in a variety of creative, holy ways.

Here is one example of how this wide dimension plays a role in the renewal of a church. The Rev. Lance Richards D’10 began serving as senior pastor at Lexington United Methodist Church in Lexington, Texas, in June 2010. The church is in the heart of this small town of 1,200 people, but when he arrived weekly attendance at worship services had dwindled to about 50 people. Over the last three years, Lexington UMC has experienced an 84 percent increase in worship attendance and an 80 percent increase in giving. This has allowed the congregation to hire two staff persons to help with communications and youth ministry. By almost any measure, these are impressive numbers. But when you talk to pastoral staff, they don’t focus on these numbers. They talk about what that growth has meant for the capacity of the church for ministry. “I wish I could say this growth is because of something novel or revolutionary,” Richards says. “The truth is, it came from making spiritual formation the center of our life together, strengthening the core practices of the church, and intentionally focusing on four areas: prayer, purpose, preaching, and participation.”

Prayer anchors the heart of Lexington UMC. The prayer team receives prayer requests not only from congregation members but also from the community, which gives them a sense of the broader needs around them and helps them discover how God is calling them to serve. The prayer ministry is supported by an ongoing study of prayer in the Scriptures, and these Scriptures shape their reflections on how they can minister to one another and to
the community.

A visioning team composed of key leaders in the church gathered to discern the ongoing purpose of the congregation in light of their history, gifts, and God’s calling for them. As the senior pastor, Richards intentionally locates his preaching within a broader context of worship, which is intended to connect the church to God’s narrative of salvation offered in Scripture and to invite hearers to go deeper in their discipleship and faith in Jesus Christ. Drawing upon their Wesleyan heritage and its doctrines, the weekly sermons encourage disciples to participate in God’s reign through ministries of compassion in the community. This means more than mere membership on a committee; it includes serving others—from reading Scripture during a worship service to volunteering in an after-school program that serves 65 children.   

Lexington UMC is encountering some of the challenges that accompany this “wide” dimension of renewal. As the number of people who are part of the life of the church—including members, attenders at worship, and people being served in the community—has grown, the church facilities have become increasingly cramped. The church is acting in faith to build a mission center so that they can extend their capacity to invite more people to participate in ministries offered by the church family. One of the oldest members describes the project in this way: “This new building isn’t for those already attending—it is to reach a new generation for Jesus Christ.”