2024 State of the Church Address, March 2024

To see a video of Pastor Rob sharing this information, click here.

Friends of the United Methodist Church of Geneva,

          It is an honor to be your pastor and to share the good news about what God is doing in and through us as a church, alongside some data that sometimes interrupts my sleep. Like the national address, I want to speak broadly about trends and what I see as your leader while also casting vision for the year and years ahead.

          In this address, I want to start with some statistics our Bishop Schwerin has shared recently that makes me anxious. For those who may not know the United Methodist Church consists of many units. The local church is the core unit, and the global church or General Church is the broadest unit. In Geneva we belong to the Northern Illinois Annual Conference which makes up the northern third of the state of Illinois. When I started in ministry 20 years ago, there were almost 400 local churches in our Annual Conference. We are now under 325 local churches (8 congregations in our Conference have disaffiliated from the denomination). The statistic Bishop Schwerin shared was that in 2019 one-third of our 325 churches had 35 or fewer people in attendance each week in worship. That is tough news. What is even more difficult is that by 2022, just 4 years later, 54% of our churches report having fewer than 35 people in attendance on a Sunday. Over half of the churches in our area are facing steep decline. This isn’t just little country churches –this is suburban and urban churches, too.          

This shocking decline could be Geneva’s story, too. When I arrived in 2021, I shared the data of decline with you all. For 20 years we had been experiencing an average rate of decline of 16.6%. Declines tend to have snowball and avalanche effects – meaning they grow exponentially as they happen or can be sudden and precipitous. By simply reducing our congregation by 16.6% annually, this church would have been a church of 35 by 2031 or earlier. In fact, Bishop Schwerin projects that by 2030 the Northern Illinois Conference will consist of roughly 150 churches and of those, some will be strong and vital, and some will be struggling to make it.          

What our Bishop notes aligns with nationwide trends affecting nearly all Christian churches, regardless of denominational affiliation; evangelical or mainline, Catholic or Protestant. In 2023, 54% of all churches are in decline, only 12% are stable, and 33% are growing.

          Here is where we are. In the first several weeks of 2024, we’re continuing on a growing trend that really kicked off about two years ago. I celebrate what God is doing in our midst. The hardest part about being a church is getting people, and God is supplying people. I give God thanks for everyone who invites people to church, who serve in our hospitality ministries, those who simply greet a new face and invite them to enjoy refreshments. These are small but critical ways we can receive the gift of people that God is providing and be good stewards of each other.

          The same is true of Sunday school. There are Sundays where we have to pull teens out of their Sunday school classes to support classes for our little ones. I know I made an appeal for adults to be Sunday School helpers (not teachers, but helpers) and we’ve had some response. But the growth of our children’s ministry might outpace our volunteer pool. So, if you think you can play with kids and help someone with a lesson, please talk to Dr. Greg. I have no problem filming my sermons for play back in worship so I can go play with kids and teach them about Jesus. We pray for growth, God supplies it, we need to respond to it; and I’ll sit in little chairs to respond to what God is doing, if needed.

          The growth we are experiencing matches the nationwide trends and while it is exciting it is also concerning to me. The growth we are experiencing is mostly migratory and consolidation. As people move about the country, they look for a new church and land here. As churches decline people still want the ministries their church no longer has critical mass to support and so they search out a different church, adding to our growth but at the cost of another church decline. This saddens me but also concerns me as the growth we experience now is a short-term strategy, not long-term sustainability. We still need to do the hard work of becoming a NextGen church that reaches new people and a new generation with emerging methods of ministry.

          Dr. Greg and I are developing a summer preaching series to help us understand what kinds of transformation God needs to work in us to become a NextGen Church. Dr. Greg will carry that series and I am going to be developing a leadership cohort, resourced by Dr. Greg, which will study, pray, innovate, and help use the energy of growth to make the cultural changes that can lead to long-term sustainability. But I want to reiterate; the two most effective things any one of us can do to help grow our church is to invite people to church and extend hospitality. (One additional thing is to not eat all the donuts before the children come up from Sunday School.)      

I also want to celebrate the hard work and generosity we are putting forth to make our church healthier financially. Over 55% of those who made pledges this year were able to give a little more. This continued generosity, combined with expense reductions, took what were six-figure annual deficits and turned them into a four-figure deficit. As you can see, we’re trending towards a balanced budget and hopefully in the next 14-16 months, with continued hard work and generosity, we’ll be able to keep up with growth and have surplus funds to build reserves to a healthy position from donations and not the UMGFund. I’m also impressed that the careful planning of using our UMGFund to secure a line of credit for our capital projects has proven to be an act of great stewardship, allowing our fund to grow at a rate higher than the cost of projects. Jim Alderfer recently provided a presentation on how much our finances have improved in the past year.

          I also celebrate that we’ve been able to take care of many of our capital needs. Our Trustees are working really hard, not just to fix things as they break, but to put our assets on a management plan so that the need for unexpected repairs decreases and our property can be well-maintained for generations to come as well as being good stewards of our planet. We still need to get our curb appeal back from last year’s geothermal installation and sewer repair and get our 42-year-old elevator into prime working order and finish our sanctuary beautification. We have some great folks working on those matters and I am sure you’ll hear more about that soon and how we might get involved.

          I celebrate that this year we’re not only current on apportionments, our first mile of missional giving, but that we’ve already given over $40,000 to support missions locally, nationally, and globally beyond apportionment giving! I also celebrate that we are over one-third of the way to meeting our goal of raising an additional $33,000 to support our mission partners through our Easter and Christmas offerings.

          Our staff continues to work hard (sometimes too hard) to support our ministry. I am grateful for all the support they provide me. I hope that you’ll continue to find ways to recognize their dedication to our church and also not overwhelm them. I want to also thank Pastors Mary Gay and Becky for all the ways they continue to share their gifts that bless our church and help us become a NextGen Church.

          I appreciate the concern for my well-being in moving from two full-time clergy to one. Our Friendly Visitors and Stephen Ministers have been an essential part in making sure we continue to provide care for each other. I know not having a pastor dedicated in part to providing pastoral care has been a loss for us. I wish I could be more proactive in making house calls instead of addressing the need for pastoral care in triage fashion. I do like to make visits; if you desire a visit from me, please let me know. I am happy to schedule a visit, even if it takes a few weeks to get on my schedule. I much appreciate those moments. I also recognize that Pastor Lisa’s energy and drive to call us into hands-on mission and social justice is something that we sorely miss. Please know that if you feel the Spirit nudging you to take action, I support you. I, and our staff, will do what we can to help you answer the Spirit’s prompting and invite others to hands-on ministry. I’ve been weathering this transition well thanks to all who have stepped up. My family and I have some plans for respite and renewal later this year to ensure that I don’t burn out. Your prayers for me are often felt and a significant contribution to the health of our church.          

 I want to wrap up by noting where I see bright hope for tomorrow. Trends are showing that Gen Z – that’s people under the age of 27 – have a deep spiritual longing and desire for authentic relationships. I recently invited our Church Council to read an article about the Church of Taylor Swift.  There is a reason why Taylor Swift is the most powerful and influential performer of our time. There is a reason why mayors will rename streets after her. There is a reason why Ticketmaster had to sit before Congress when her shows broke the entire system. There is a reason why political pundits are quick to whip up conspiracies about her. Because she is popular based not on fear, hate, or scandal. She is not known for what or who she is against. Instead, Swift is authentic – performing in the rain because it means so much for her fans to see the show. She is kind – she will stop and talk to fans and actually listen to them, full of empathy without superiority. Fans make friendship bracelets to exchange with other concert goers as an extension of that kindness. And Swift is also known for grace, genuine care and love for others and paying genuine compliments. This is why her shows are phenomena and there is concern about her power and influence. We live in a world that is starving for authenticity, kindness and grace and a younger generation will pay almost any price to experience it for a few hour.

I know someone who is authentic, kind, and graceful – whose influence on the hearts and minds of generations has and will continue to far outshine Taylor Swift. His name is Jesus, and we are His followers when we are authentic, kind, and full of His grace. This is what the people called Methodists were known for (along with their intense Bible study, singing in harmony and potlucks). A new generation is ready for Jesus, but the method for following Jesus in the next generation may not be (and it seems is not) the same as it is for us. This is what Dr. Greg and I will be working on over the next year plus. With these kind of culture shifts we need to put Jesus at the center of our church so that His authenticity, warm empathy, kindness, and grace are what the people called United Methodist are known for by illuminating our communities with God’s grace. This is our purpose and we do that by loving people and caring for the planet.

I am excited by what God is doing through us and the chance to celebrate God’s faithfulness in our church for the past 185 years, which we will celebrate this fall, while also working together to receive the newness God is bringing in our midst and attend to the emergences of how we can become a new church for a new generation of people who need Jesus and His grace, as we illuminate our community with God’s grace as we lovingly accept, listen to, and serve all in the Spirit of Jesus!

Thank you for your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness that God is using to bless UMCG for our mission of illuminating our communities with God’s grace!