Question: Which is more important, inhaling or exhaling?
Answer: Depends on which you did last…
Breathing requires both, and life depends on good breathing. Too little oxygen leads to asphyxiation; too much to hyper-ventilation. You can’t be good at one and bad at the other. No one can say, “Well, I prefer inhaling, so that’s what I do 80% of the time.” And yet, metaphorically, this is what many of our churches do.
Breathing is a keen metaphor for our healthiest United Methodist churches. Our nurture, fellowship, worship, education, and formation practices are our inhale, while our outreach, service, care-giving, faith sharing, and missional activities are our exhale. Inward and spiritual work resulting in outward and visible fruits. Service and witness in the world, requiring renewal, restoration, and revitalization. In and out, out and in.
Yet, many of our congregations do more inhaling than exhaling. Energy, resources, focus, and efforts aimed at our own local church — taking care of the members we’ve got, providing services and nurture for those who enter our doors, major activity designed to get more people to come to us. Heavy on the inputs, but light on the outputs.
Even when we exhale, we don’t exhale fully. Many of our churches designate representatives to exhale on behalf of the whole body of the church. A few people do mission projects, a small group form an evangelism committee, and handful run the food pantry — exhale — but the majority sit and receive, soak up, and consume — inhale. And we wonder why our churches are lethargic, weak, and faint…
Surveys on church life run the theological gamut, but one thing most have in common is that approximately four-out-of-five church goers in the United States come to be served, rather than to serve. This 80% majority look to the church to care for them, teach them (and their children), to inspire them, to entertain them, and to satisfy them (inhale), but they do not feel the church has the right to make demands of them, or to expect them to serve others (exhale). To this significant segment, the church is a service organization that exists for their benefit, not a covenant community in which they have a responsibility for others. Our healthiest churches challenge this convention, and refuse to allow a consumeristic function to define them. Church is a participatory lifestyle, not a spiritual filling station.
It isn’t enough for everyone to inhale, but only some to exhale. Good health depends on everyone learning to breathe. Each Christian disciple needs to be coached, trained, equipped, and mentored in how to share what they receive with others. Each inward function of growth and development should enable a disciple to serve or perform in a tangible way. For most, it does not come naturally (as breathing), but must be learned.
The best way is to be clear about expectations and the rules of participation at the outset. To be a member of a United Methodist Church means to be actively engaged in a process (journey) of personal transformation (disciple-making) for the transformation of the world (stewardship and service). When people are taught that this is the very definition of what it means to be United Methodist, it is much easier to do. The problem is, most of our existing United Methodists have been around for a long time, and very little has been expected of them. They have been inhaling for years, and they are not much interested in learning how to exhale at this late date. The problem is, if inhaling isn’t matched with exhaling, there is no health, no vitality, no discipleship. Unless we put faith into action, we are only living half a life, and that is never healthy.
A primary work of leadership in the church is teaching people how to breathe. One of the wonderful terms from the Greek is pneuma, which can mean “breath,” or “wind,” or “spirit.” Pneuma is the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, the divine Wind, and wherever it moves, transformation occurs. Pneuma is not ours to contain or hold or control — the wind, the breath of God, blows where it wills, and all we can do is learn to move and bend with it. We are healthiest when we draw deeply from this holy Spirit and allow it to blow us forth into the world. The church is not the place we go to, but the place we call “church” is where we are filled by the Spirit of God to go BE the church in the world — an outward and visible sign of God’s grace and light and love.
Certainly, the church exists for our benefit — but we are the church together, so we exist for the benefit of others. It is unacceptable for any local church to only take care of its own members, its own needs, its own comfort, and its own desires. Inhale too long you weaken, you faint, and then you die. There is no sustainable life for congregations too focused on themselves. The only true life and health lies in balance — receiving what is needed to form and grow the faith of the Christian disciple, sending and sharing the fruits of discipleship with the world. It is time to breathe deeply and to breathe well — for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the world.