By Melissa Lauber
Amid drastic changes in cultural and religious landscapes, the Church is having to simultaneously serve as hospice nurse and midwife – retiring programs that have become irrelevant to the community and giving birth to new ministries that bring about meaningful transformation and wholeness.
To enable congregations to move into this new way of being church, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling and leaders in the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Conferences have introduced Missional Action Planning as a new foundational approach to ministry.
MAP offers a mindset and a process for United Methodist churches seeking to thrive. It calls on faith communities to look beyond their sanctuaries and partner with their neighbors in innovative ways to change people’s lives for the good of the Gospel.
But MAP is not a re-heating of past best practices in church growth and development. COVID, conference leaders agree, accelerated existing conditions that lead to church decline. Churches have changed at a cellular level, and a March Gallup poll reports that in 2020, only 47 percent, of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.
“The future belongs to those who come not with the answers, but with deeper questions. Certitude is killing us,” said Bishop Easterling. MAP invites exploration, imagination and risk-taking like never before. It will require churches to cast off assumptions about what is “normal” and adopt encounters and relationships as a key to decision-making and planning.
To explore the possibilities, the Extended BWC and Pen-Del Cabinets met in December with Shannon Hopkins, a founder of Rooted Good, which helps faith-based organizations align money and mission to reclaim their relevance in a changing world.
In the next three to seven years, more than 100,000 of the nation’s estimated 384,000 churches and other houses of worship are predicted to close, Hopkins reported. Some estimates suggest that $3.5 billion of church property will be sold in 2023 alone.
“If this estimate is close, if it is even 50 percent accurate, this has the ability to have the greatest impact on the restructuring of American society in generations,” Hopkins said. “It’s happening on our watch. We will never have this opportunity again. It’s ours to leverage or squander.”
The possibilities for how churches might listen and learn about their community’s needs and develop partnerships to help meet those needs are tremendous. According to the MAP webpage, "Congregations need to think about how their church’s relevance and community presence has increased or declined over the past few years. What will happen to our congregational vitality and community impact if we maintain a 'death grip' on our buildings and not adapt to meet current spiritual and community needs while being faithful to the Gospel. How must we reimagine what is possible in and beyond local churches? MAP can help churches determine their next faithful step.”
For some, that step might be using their church property to create affordable housing. Other churches have recently transformed their buildings into grocery stores, medical clinics, literacy hubs and social enterprise centers for community groups and small businesses.
Imagination and reframing our ideas about church will be “crucial in expanding the breadth of the way a property can be repurposed,” Bishop Easterling said.
But no church can undertake MAP in isolation. “Mission shares and tithing won’t be sufficient,” conference leaders believe. Instead, churches need to “begin creating new economic models to bring light and life to their communities.”
They realize that such changes and risk-taking can make churches uncomfortable, but circumstances call for churches to reclaim their vitality, and MAP is a way of being that makes that possible.
But Missional Action Planning is not just a tool for local churches. MAP initiatives are also being undertaken at the district and annual conference levels. District Map teams are in the process of gathering intensive demographic data, through MissionInsite, to determine their next faithful steps.
The Councils on Finance and Administration and Boards of Trustees, along with conference ministry leaders, will be working to assist the conferences, districts and churches seeking to discover new ways of doing vital ministry. Several congregations are also already participating in the Launch, Catalyst and Readiness Pathways for Congregational Vitality.
In the coming months, leaders will continue to explore key questions about the implications MAP has on leadership, partnerships, funding and processes. They are clear that new measurements and new outlooks on mission and ministry and that already effective discipleship will need to be nurtured.
“The church needs to care for those in the center while doing risk-taking ministry on the margins,” said the Rev. Bill Brown, director of Creative Evangelism.
“We’ll be building competence and capacities for new things,” the bishop said. “MAP is not another program. It is a total paradigm shift of who we are. It’s a movement of transformation based on the deep Gospel work that Jesus came to embody for us.