Adapt, Migrate, or Decline: A Call To Be Transformed

"Adapt, migrate, or die" is a multidisciplinary concept emphasizing the necessity for entities, including religious institutions like the church, to embrace change or face the risk of becoming irrelevant or extinct. As organizations and individuals confront changing circumstances, the ability to be flexible and open to new approaches, whether through adaptation or migration, becomes crucial for maintaining vitality and impact. In the context of the church, "adapt, migrate, or die" serves as a reminder of the imperative to address the challenges and shifts of the contemporary era to remain relevant and meaningful in the lives of congregants and community.

In our rapidly changing world, the church faces significant challenges that demand our attention. With declining attendance and a growing societal hunger for genuine community and connection, we stand at the crossroads of "Adapt, Migrate, or Decline."  (To be fair the Church-big "C- has been here for a while. COVID just made this more clear and also accelerated the rate of decline.) Some within our United Methodist denomination are opting for migration as a viable option. However, both maintaining the status quo and migration present their own set of potentially unforeseen challenges and consequences. I’m not so sure we are fully unpacking the ramifications and risks inherent in couching our issues as simply do we “stay or go."

While we are expending precious energy and resources on deciding to “stay or go,” the church is declining. Not just The United Methodist Church, but “the church.” Churches of all denominations are grappling with a decline in attendance as societal and cultural shifts impact the church’s relevance in communal life. In this strange digital age, people are yearning and hungering for meaningful connections and authentic community experiences. But is the church delivering? We could be…The church has the unique potential to provide a safe haven for individuals seeking genuine relationships. We have the “answer” to what the world needs…We have Jesus. By nurturing a sense of belonging and fostering authentic connections to Jesus and each other, churches could become vibrant centers of belonging and support.

But we are not even addressing this because of our internal (and ugly) disputes. The fracturing within the United Methodist Church has left many congregations wrestling with daunting decisions. Migrating away from the UMC body and becoming independent or joining a brand new denomination on the surface appears to be an “escape” from our current denominational woes. However, migration, while possibly offering temporary relief, cannot serve as a "magic bullet" for the challenges faced by churches today.

Scraping the UMC cross and flame off your church sign and claiming nothing (or everything) is changing is not going to cut it. We have a much bigger problem than are you First United Methodist Church of BackBay or First Church BackBay. Your sign is not going to reach unreached people for Christ.

The Public Religion Research Institute's recent study, "Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval" reveals that participation in houses of worship continues to decrease. PRRI reported 28% of respondents now claiming to "seldom" attend religious services, compared to figures of 22% a decade ago. Furthermore, 29% of respondents now state that they "never" attend religious services, up from 21% ten years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated this larger trend. In 2019, 19% of Americans reported attending a religious service once a week. However, the percentage of those attending weekly has now dropped to 16%, with only 13% stating that they attend "a few times a year."

Churches that resist change and opt to stay the same risk losing relevance and ultimately facing death.
To avoid this fate, churches must open their hearts to the ongoing, oftentimes painful, work of transformation. Just "staying" UMC without adaptions that lead to a passionate pursuit of unreached people and creative spaces for healing, growth and community is not enough, either.

Migrating from one denomination to another (or no denomination) brings its own set of challenges, such as restructuring governance, lack of accountability and connection, the collateral damage of a church torn apart, and potentially shutting the door on the very people Jesus is wanting you to reach. 

Are churches that choose migration preparing to adapt as well? Because no church is going to escape the need for innovation and inclusivity. 

Not to mention the trail of tears that “migrating” churches are leaving behind.

What I keep circling back to is there is nothing remarkable or even holy about church schism. And this certainly is a terrible look for those on the outside peering in.

The Apostle Paul admonishes believers to be “like minded. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves." (Philippians 2:3-4)

John Wesley cautions against causing division within the church body and equates internal conflict to "rending the seamless coat of Christ" to illustrate the damage that can be done when Christians are in opposition with one another. 

What about Jesus? He could have asked his Father for anything at all as his embodied mission was drawing to a close, and unity is his request: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their (the disciples’) message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

If your church voted to cohesively “migrate” at say a 90+ percentage, I suppose migration is your best path forward. But what we are witnessing in many disaffiliating churches is something much more complex. Much more messy. With much more injury to the body and damage to our witness. Something that smacks of schism. This at least should be carefully weighed prior to moving forward in a migration attempt. 

At the heart of the church's mission lies the power of Holy Spirit inspired unity in Christian community. Creating a called out gathering not built around a required uniformity, but a shared communal faith. To survive and thrive, churches must be willing to reinvent themselves while staying true to our core unwavering doctrine. And, yes, the United Methodist Church is a creedal church. We believe Jesus is literally God in human skin and he defeated death and wants us to go, love and serve others in the power and name of the Risen Savior. And placing Jesus at the center as the ultimate change agent is the key to navigating through these darkened and divisive days. 

We stand on the cusp of a critical juncture. The decline in attendance and the yearning for genuine connections demand action. The choice is: adapt, migrate, or risk irrelevance and decline. Do nothing? Your church is going to die. While migration may offer temporary relief, it's not enough alone. Our hope lies in embracing transformational adaptation. By leveraging this moment of challenge and change, the church can revitalize its mission, embrace innovation, and create an environment that fosters genuine community and connection. By doing so, the church can position itself as a source of support, meaning, and purpose in the lives of those seeking solace in the face of modern complexities.

Instead of tearing each other apart while the world watches, our shared high calling in Christ should be elevated over all other lesser internal squabbling:  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) In other words--go and "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."


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