A large number of United Methodist congregations are struggling — with money, with members, with commitment, with leadership, with a host of problems large and small. Many of these churches aren’t doing anything wrong to cause these problems — in fact, they aren’t doing anything much at all. And that’s the source of the trouble. For years I have been curious to understand the large number of United Methodist congregations that do essentially nothing beyond the walls of their buildings. This is not, I repeat NOT, in any way to ignore the incredible mission work The United Methodist Church does at all levels. Missional outreach and Christian service is in the denomination’s DNA — it helps define us as “United Methodist.” But that’s the point. About one-in-five (20%) of our churches do nothing or next to nothing for those outside the church. Another 20-30% limit their missional focus to whatever good is done through apportionments, and a significant number of our congregations support mission work passively — giving money so that other people might do it. The important correlation here, however, is that our healthiest congregations are those that have active, widespread, committed engagement from a large number of people in a large number of good works.
The outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual graces is not merely a nice poetic turn — it is the tangible evidence that we are truly engaged in the will of God and the work of Christ. Yet, for years I have received resistance to the idea. When I wrote the Bible study, FaithQuest, in 1996 — based on Luke, Acts, Ephesians, and teachings of John Wesley and The United Methodist theological task and Social Principles — I received a number of angry emails challenging my reading of scripture. The thesis of FaithQuest is that we are formed in the faith, equipped to be disciples of Jesus Christ, through the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit we become the body of Christ, and we continue to serve and function as Christ for the whole world, This is the sweep from Jesus’ invitation to follow me, through the Pentecost miracle, to the formation of the “church” as a mission/vision focused institution to Wesley’s vision of the world as our parish. To this day I don’t believe I imposed much of an interpretation on the biblical and theological materials (beyond selecting those books that best illustrate the universal servant/service nature of the church), yet many were angry. One woman pastor from Michigan wrote:
How dare you imply that it is not enough that we take care of one another in the church. Our world is a hostile and dangerous place. There is a reason we call our places of worship “sanctuaries.” It is all we can do to cope with the sin and corruption of our modern age. We welcome people to come in out of the darkness and trouble for comfort and security. It is unfair of you to place a burden of guilt on us because we don’t share your liberal agenda.
It always breaks my heart when I hear people link the notions of kindness, caring, healing, helping and generosity to a political agenda. I cannot help but feel this woman’s pain. Life is indeed difficult and the world can be a scary faith. We truly do need a faith that protects and defends, but that alone is an incomplete faith. We’re not the only ones hurting, and we do not have the luxury of merely receiving the blessings of Christ and holding onto them for ourselves. What we have received, we are expected to share with others — whether we believe they are deserving or not.
On the practical side, churches that do for others tend to be healthier churches. Giving is higher in missionally focused congregations. Levels of participation and engagement tend to be higher. Morale and spirit tend to be higher. Just the other night I visited a small rural church where no fewer than five people proudly shared stories of the mission work being done by their congregation — and not just a few members of the congregation, but by the majority of the congregational members. A few years ago I visited one of the poorest congregations (financially) I have ever seen. They had funds for virtually nothing — including paying a full-time pastor or paying their apportionments in full — but just about every member of that church served in some mission-focused capacity in the community. The spirit and energy in that congregation was infectious — a congregation with constant money worries where every person was smiling and singing and proudly sharing stories of the power of Christ to touch and change lives. It was refreshing.
I have often likened congregational life to breathing, and ask the question, “which is most important? Breathing out or breathing in?” (Answer: depends on which you did last…) Sustainable health depends on balance — inhaling (inward practices that develop us in our faith and abilities to serve) and exhaling (applying what we learn in service to others). Inwardly we build faith, while outwardly we express that faith as a witness to others of the grace and goodness of our God. Evangelism isn’t just about the words we say to get others to come to us; true evangelism is the integral message of our entire lives — what we say and do (faith without works is dead…).
A number of years ago I met with a church that was considering closing its doors. A once-thriving congregation of over 400 had dwindled to less than 50 and the building was literally falling down around their ears. They could no longer afford a full-time pastor and they were struggling just to pay bills month to month. In all their discussions and planning, not once did church leaders talk about the mission of the church or the work they could do. They had no vision of the present, let alone the future. Yet, they were located in the heart of a community struggling with many of the same issues they were. High unemployment, low-income, struggling families, a higher-than-usual percentage of older adults, and a large, poor Native American population within just a few miles. Through the process of planning, the leaders decided that they would work to close the church… but in three years. During those three years, they would select one main ministry to focus on in the community. They would offer help and assistance to the Native Americans. They would open the church fellowship hall to mothers with young children. They would work to help the elderly and the homebound in the community. This plan was put into place in 1995… and the church still functions today, still very small, but strong and stable and making a difference in the lives of hundreds of people.
We all need reminders that the church isn’t ours, it’s God’s — and it exists to fulfill God’s will and purpose, not our own. But when the church really takes off? That is when God’s will and our will coincide — where what we do is a clean match for what God wants done. We talk a lot about sin as an individual act, but throughout the history of the Hebrew people and the earliest Christian history, culture was not so much defined by individuals as communities. “Sins” weren’t what individuals did; “sin” was the “missing the mark” (the literal definition of sin) of the whole community. When we are not engaged beyond our own needs, wants and desires, we are missing the mark. But when our life together bears fruit that feeds and satisfies a starving and struggling world, then we are right on target.