Dan Dick posted in a comment on his blog this little astronomical portrait of the typical church:
Years and years ago, I divided the “average” UM congregation into five levels of participation (The Cosmology of Church Participation, from Revolutionizing Christian Stewardship). I called them The Solar Center, the Inner Planets, the Asteroid Belt, the Outer Planets, and The Lost in Space. Solar Center = 10-15% of the most dedicated and serious, Inner Planets = 10-15% of those in “sponge mode,” there to soak up all they can to learn and deepen the faith, the Asteroid Belt = those who attend church on a regular basis and maybe a Sunday school class, Outer Planets = Easter & Christmas Christians, and the Lost in Space = inactives, moved away, deceased, etc. The point I made then, and the point I keep making, is that the transformative church of Jesus Christ exists at the center, but that is not the church we work hard to support. We use the Solar Center to prop up a more comfortable setting for Asteroids, all the time keeping our eye out for Inner Planets that we can draw into our Solar Center gravitational field — so they can serve the Asteroid Belt.
The real point is that these are five different churches with five different sets of expectations. There is no single sermon, no one book, no pertinent message that speaks to all five levels equally. So, who we tailor our messages and ministries to determines what kind of church we are. Once numbers became so important to The United Methodist Church, there was no way we could focus on the Solar Center… or even the Inner Planets. The sheer mass of the outer levels — 70-80% of UM membership and participation — means they call the shots. Good/bad, right/wrong, doesn’t much matter. It is what it is, and structurally we have no real interest in changing it. None of the healthiest churches in our denomination got healthy without substantial pruning (except for those who had lost so many members first that there was nowhere to go but up). Interestingly, all of them began to grow again — there are few things more inviting than a community that is truly counter-cultural.
Remember how Jesus kept given sermons that caused people to run away and leave the movement? Have you ever read the way John Wesley booted people out of the Methodist societies when they demonstrated by persistent behavior that they were not interested in being members.
But this is the wrong reaction isn’t it?
What we need is not a passion for drawing lines and pushing people out. What we need is a passion for cultivating and creating white hot faith there in the center of the solar system. We need to ask what is needed to support the those trying to live out their faith in intentional ways. And we have to gear the structures of the church around our answers.