For years, United Methodists have pledged to uphold the church by their “prayers, presence, gifts, and service.” Just this year a fifth promise was added — “witness.” It is a little problematic that we’ve added a fifth when we haven’t done a very good job with the first four — however, it also presents us with an incredible opportunity.
Ask the average United Methodist pew sitter to describe what it means to keep their membership vows, and you will get a vague, hazy, and somewhat confused definition. This isn’t the fault of the pew sitter. It is the fault of congregational leaders who have never wrestled with what it actually means to be a “member” of a community of faith. What does it mean to “uphold” a congregation in prayer? What is the actual expectation? To pray weekly? To pray daily? To pray when you attend worship? To pray if and when you remember?
What about presence? What does it mean to “be present” in, with, and for the congregation? Does it mean attending a worship service? Does it mean being part of a small group? Are we talking daily, weekly, monthly, annually or on high holy days? And gifts — are we talking money, skills, knowledge, experience, resources, time, energy, and/or passion? How much are we talking? One percent? Ten percent (ah, the tithe…)? More? Less? And service? Do we mean working at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? Serving on a church committee, team, or board? Does it mean teaching Sunday school or a Bible study or leading a small group? Does it mean serving others in the church, outside the church, on a daily basis or on an annual mission trip? What does it mean? And now, witness. Do we witness in words or in deeds or in both? Do we need training? Do we need tracts to hand out? Do we need to get a bumper sticker that says “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors?” Should we rent a billboard or pay for some local air time on radio or TV?
In my experience, few congregations have leaders that can answer these questions clearly, specifically, and concisely. However, those that can are among the healthiest churches I have visited. Clearly articulated, widely understood, and lovingly enforced membership standards and participant expectations are a hallmark of vital, healthy congregations.
But where do they come from? They come from a comprehensive, well-designed strategy to ground the identity of the congregation in the vows that define “membership.” The membership of The United Methodist Church has been numerically declining throughout its 40 year history. One significant reason is that no one is really clear on what separates a “member” from a “friend,” “associate,” “participant,” “visitor,” or “guest.” Because there is no accountability (nothing happens to a person who takes the vows of membership, then doesn’t keep them), there is no reason to “join.” If I can attend worship, get visited at home or in the hospital, get my children “done” (baptized) and wed, and my parents buried, whether I am a member or not, then why bother? This attitude developed as the focus on membership shifted from the integrity of the community and the development of the individual to the need of the institution to supply laity (cheap) leadership and to fund the budget. The beneficiaries of a “church membership” should be the member as a disciple-in-formation and the community of Christ growing together as the body of Christ for the world.
The vows of membership are not burdens loaded on the shoulders of the men and women who make them. Prayer is a spiritual discipline and a gift. It helps connect individuals to God and God’s will, and it helps strengthen the bonds of Christian community as people pray with and for each other. Presence is an invitation to be exposed to the teachings of Christ and the church that impact and shape values, priorities, desires, expectations, and life direction. Together we are stronger than we are apart. Gifts challenge us to invest in something larger than ourselves; to take what we have, connect it to the giving of others, and create something that will honor and glorify God. We give to make manifest what we profess with our mouths — our gifts become outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual faith. Service is where we put ourselves on the line to do something — to be the body of Christ incarnate. We become the hands of Christ, comforting the anxious, healing the hurt, feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely and imprisoned, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, and giving hope to the hopeless. This is also our witness — and as we walk this earth as the incarnate body of Christ, we praise, glorify and worship our God with not only our actions, but also our words. We don’t just serve those who come to us, but we go forth into the world looking for the next person in need.
I offer a set of challenges to the leaders of our United Methodist congregations (who aren’t already doing these things):
- Work together as leadership teams to define and clarify what the membership vows mean — for you. Fill in the blanks in the following statement (or something similar): “To be a leader in this congregation, we believe it is reasonable that we should pray __________ times every _______, attend worship here or in another church ________ times every _______, should be actively engaged in a spiritual formation group or study, strive to model sacrificial giving on a _________ basis (not only of money, but of time and skills as well), to be engaged in some form of outreach ministry beyond our congregation on a __________ basis, and to intentionally share our faith with another person (outside the congregation) each _________. (This is a model used by a number of United Methodist Churches). Once the leadership “walks the talk,” it is much easier to begin defining expectations with the whole congregation.
- Hold some open congregational meetings where the focus of the discussion is, “What are reasonable standards/expectations to define membership in our church?” Then create measurable standards for “prayer, presence, gifts, service and witness.” It is much easier to hold each other accountable to standards that everyone agreed to at the outset.
- Preachers preach a five-part sermon series on “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness”.
- Teachers teach their classes about “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
- Hold a series of fellowship dinners/celebrations where the focus is on “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness”.
- Put them on banners, in the newsletter, on the website, in the bulletin, on the “big screens,” on posters in the narthex, on the sign outside — anything that communicates that “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness” are central to WHO YOU ARE as a spiritual community in Christ, called United Methodist.
Congregations that explore these issues, define standards of participation, support people in their efforts to improve in these areas, and take them seriously enough to hold people accountable, find that they are giving a real gift to their members. In every case, it makes the church stronger, and it makes members prouder and more deeply engaged. Sure, some people don’t like it and don’t want to join in, but that’s what separates the disciples from those who merely believe — and after all, our mission is to make disciples, not to keep people happy.