I may get blasted on this.  That’s okay.  I am sharing almost twenty years of similar responses here, and I think we — especially clergy — need to listen.  Laity across the United Methodist Church are sending four messages loud and clear:  prayer, stewardship, evangelism and Bible are NOT being taught in our churches.  We are assuming that people know these things.  Yet, it is clear that our church is in danger of extinction because these four things (at the very least) are not being taught.  In our fever to grow, get new people, build more buildings, pay our bills, and keep up with the newest 7 Steps, 12 Keys, 40 Days programs we have drifted from the basics.  We have cultivated a Christian culture of biblically illiterate, nominally connected, scarcity-minded, non-evangelicals.

In Wisconsin I have continued to ask the same questions I did across the denomination for the 14+ years I worked for the General Board of Discipleship.  Essentially, I ask lay people how well equipped they are to grow in their spirituality and their discipleship.  The vast majority do not remember the last time anyone taught about prayer in the church.  Most cannot remember the last time anyone encouraged them to pray.  Many are aware that there is a “prayer circle” or “prayer chain” in their church, but they don’t know how it works.  Four-out-of-five United Methodists can’t tell you the difference between intercessory prayer, confession, petition, and they don’t know what a doxology or benediction are.  Small matter?  Maybe, but they are indicators of the more fundamental issue.  United Methodists don’t pray much at all.  Over 50% don’t think prayer is very important to their faith, and as indicated in an earlier post, many simply are “too busy” to pray on a regular basis.  Almost 40% admit that they really “don’t know how to pray” or don’t know “if I do it right.”

As to the Bible, I’m not just talking about Bible study, but the basics.  Over one-third of United Methodist adults cannot name the four gospels, and a slightly larger percentage don’t know what a “gospel” is.  If you ask a congregation of United Methodists to turn to a passage in I Corinthians, the most asked question in response is “Is that in the Old or New Testament?”  Almost 40% of United Methodists believe that Jesus wrote some of the New Testament.  Very few know how many books there are in the Bible or how our canon came to be.  Two-in-five believe that the Hebrew scriptures are “about Jesus.”  When asked to identify whether characters are from the Old or New Testaments, the majority of UMs are flummoxed.  We’re not talking seminary level education here — we’re talking second grade.

Evangelism — faith sharing — witnessing.  These things (especially the word/concept “evangelism”) leave a bad taste in many UMs mouths.  The majority of UMs believe either that “a person’s faith is a personal and private matter,” or that they “have no right to impose their beliefs on other people.”  However, these attitudes extend to merely sharing beliefs and faith experiences.  United Methodists basically compartmentalize their faith — they have a “church life” and a “real life,” and never the twain shall meet.  Where UMs do share their faith is with other UMs.  Forty-five percent of church-goers claim that they don’t know anyone who doesn’t already go to church or believe in God.  This is an outrageous idea.  We meet hundreds of people in a week, and statistically a large portion of them do not have any faith affiliation, and at least a small segment are open to an invitation.  We don’t share faith for two basic reasons: 1) we don’t want to, and 2) no one is teaching us how to do it.

Stewardship — and I am not just talking about putting money in a collection plate at church — is a poor cousin to evangelism.  We don’t talk stewardship outside the church, but we don’t talk it much inside either.  And if we do talk it inside, we reduce it to some insipid campaign to fund a budget instead of teaching a rich, edifying, transformative way of living in the world.  Stewardship is putting our discipleship in action.  It is everything we do as followers of Jesus Christ.  it is the decisions we make about what we will do and not do, what we will support and not support, purchase and not purchase, consume and not consume, say and not say.  Stewardship is the way we live our lives.  Stewardship is the outward and visible expression of our most deeply held values.  Find twenty United Methodists who understand this definition of Christian stewardship and I’ll give you a dollar (because I am cheap… but even then I don’t think I will have to pay up!).  No, the few references we make to stewardship are on behalf of the church’s need to pay its bills, not as a means of spiritual growth and development for the members of the body of Christ.

And here’s the kicker: 6-out-of-10 United Methodists say they would be “very interested” and another 2-out-of-10 say they would be “interested” in being taught how to do these four things better.  Yep, 80% of the people in our pews — from the most deeply engaged to those who show up when convenient — say they want to learn to pray, to learn more about the Bible, to learn how to talk about their faith, and how to be better stewards.  Yet, the same percentage say they aren’t being taught.  Hmmm.  Dots, waiting to be connected?  A path into the future?  A way of building God’s church?  Too easy?  Maybe it’s worth a try.

20 replies

  1. All we have to do is look around us at the world in which we live and know that most people who say they are Christians have no idea what it means to be one.

    And at the denominational level, I would also suspect that many who say that they are United Methodists also have no clue as to what they are saying in defining them this way.

    The traditional church, at all levels, is so concerned about the business bottom line that they have forgotten what business they are in. The other day, we had a finance committee meeting and the concern was on how to pay the bills and if we might have to let some staff go. There was no discussion about how we can do the job of the church and bring people in. If we bring the people in, then we might resolve some of the more worldly problems (assume we can bring them into church for the real reasons). I know that my pastor was to bring forth an idea about how to meet the church’s responsibility for apportionments but she is reluctant to do so because it so goes against the mindset of the congregation.

    If the congregation’s mindset were on Biblical practices versed in the Wesley tradition, it wouldn’t be that way.

  2. In the “It worked for me” category: two of my mentors in the art of ministry taught me a practice that I tried to follow faithfully week after week. At the time of the offering in worship, I would do three things: say something like this–that the offering is an act of worship, not a means of collecting money to pay bills; stress that the offering which we are about to receive and offer to God is made up of much more than money and not all gifts can or ought to fit in those tiny offering plates; and tell some story of mission–how a gift made a difference in the world. This latter story might involve an UMCOR project or a local ministry that church folks had helped with or an incident in which I had observed someone “doing good” (kindness in a checkout line or dealing with an unhappy child). I also gave my financial gift in a church envelop and generally gave weekly and generally moved from pulpit area to an usher at the time the ushers brought the plates to the Table. I did this not to “show off” (I hope) but rather to offer an example…and to stave off that occasional opinion that the pastor got everything that went into the plate. (Similar to the opinion that pastors need not pay income tax, etc.)

  3. Great post Dan. I also appreciated the research project you did called the Place of Prayer in United Methodism while you were working at GBOD. Since reading it I have begun asking workshop participants two questions: 1. In the church cultures you’ve been a part of, how many of you were intentionally taught how to pray and how many of you were intentionally taught about the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit? I never get more than a 15% positive response.

    For that reason I’ve started a 13-week online series called Book of Acts Sermon Starters with a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit — located in the Evangelistic Preaching Helps section @ http://www.umcevangelism.org

    I also have a number of articles about faith sharing and evangelism under Offering Christ today at http://www.umcevangelism.org

    One such article is called Faith Sharing Easy as 1 – 2 – 3 http://www.gbod.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=nhLRJ2PMKsG&b=4912925&ct=7131493

    Keep addressing the issues head-on Dan.


  4. Great, super-significant message. It’s true of Christian churches in general and is not limited to the Methodist church only.

    I love what Dave Werner said about giving being an act of worship. Some plea for extra giving to bail out a ministry on the edge of imminent death. Some ministries go well beyond imminent death before saying anything about a need or asking for giving. Others roll in money and promise God will make you rich if you give to their specially anointed ministry. Some sell cloths or special oil that has been prayed over, and people flock in by the droves hoping to “get” something. They wander around from church to church leaving because they didn’t “get” something. But, we should be asking whether we have “given” anything? Have we given thanks to God for all He has already given us? Have we expressed our love and faith and trust for Him from our hearts? Do we love God, or do we just love the things we expect to get from Him?

    Evangelism is another thing. Do we try to win people over by prostituting the grace of God as a thing of cheap grace to be consumed by the narcissistic who seek only the protection of their own flesh, seeking a ticket to heaven, a license to continue living for the devil without a worry for the future or a concern for the salvation of others, and with no concern whatsoever for the glory of God? Some people speak as though carnal Christians were baby Christians. I think what the devil has done is to draw a line between the heavenbound and the hellbound and dare people to cross over to the hellbound side. And while they’re standing inches away from that line screaming back to Satan their “Absolute nots”, they have failed to realize that Satan was not entirely honest about where that line really is, and the people on the edge had already crossed that line thousands of miles back.

    Instead of asking how much sin we can live in and still go to heaven, we should be asking how much faithfulness God is worthy of. Should we accept adultery from our spouse, say, a thousand times a day if they claim “humbly” that they are weak and bound by the flesh and cannot help but live in sin against us? Should we be OK with adultery, say, once per day? Should we be thankful if our spouse is able to limit their adultery to once per day? Per week? Month? Year? Decade? Lifetime?

    Is God less worthy of faithfulness than us?

    Should we live in the land of “approved sin”? Should we feel OK to go along with it as long as others in our church approve? Should we look to our pastors for guidance in this, and if they say it’s OK, then it’s OK?

    If it’s easier to be faithful to our spouse than to God, then is that because we love our spouses more? Can we love our spouses as we should if we do not love God as we should? Can we love our children or our church or our nation or anyone truly if we do not love God?

    And what kind of love do we have for someone if we would let them go through life hellbound with our approval and support and never a word or prayer for them or their families to be saved and bringing honor and glory to God?

    Do we know how to pray? If someone were to tell someone else that you have no clue how to pray, would you be offended? Then wouldn’t it be insincere to claim humility if you were to claim inability or ignorance regarding how to pray?

    I think the problem with prayer is we may not know how to get rid of what gets in the way of our prayers. We have no idea how sin puts a gap between us and God or how it turns the sky over us into brass. We seek God’s protection for our families and for ourselves and yet we destroy that protection with our sin. We rattle off words and call it prayer but there is no connection. Our connection is broken. We cannot reach through. And perhaps it is because we want to bark our commands at God and compel Him to feel obligated to comply and obey. We have things backwards. We need to seek God.

    When you hunt for something or someone, you don’t run away from them. You don’t hide from them. You don’t do things that push them away from you and make them hide their face from you. When you seek someone, you are trying to get in contact with them. If your toddler is lost in a huge crowd, most likely you will be in a panic. You will go to anyone and make use of any resource to find your child as soon as possible before a kidnapper or pedophile does or before your child tampers with something dangerous, perhaps poison or electricity or heavy machinery. You seek as though your child’s life depends on it. But, do we seek God as though our eternity and the eternity of our family and the well being of our nation and the church depends on it? If we have to confess a sinful, dishonest, unrighteous heart and surrender to God and give up the sin and have faith in God will we do it? If we have a choice whether to give up sin or give up Jesus, which would we give up? Which DO we give up? Are we seeking God or pretending to do so? Are we saying words to be “ministerial”, or do we mean them? Do we live them? Or do we hold back the words for fear we will have to live them? If we do, how is that ministry? If we reproduce after our own kind, then what will we reproduce? Hypocrisy or sincerity? Facades or transparency? Courage or cowardice? Seeking which sin we can get away with or crying out to God for the grace to get rid of all of it?

    And how do we evangelize if we cannot pray or turn to Christ ourselves and seek God faithfully? How can we lead another to trust Christ if we won’t? Or do we just bring them in and show them the ropes so they can learn to be lying hypocrites and self-righteous cowards with facades like the rest of us? What direction are we taking the church by our examples and by our lives?

    Christians hunger to lead others to Christ when the Christianity that lives in them is real.

    You cannot help but desire to lead others to Christ. And when you are ready, God will bring people your way. It will be like going fishing and finding that the fish zoom past the net and the fishing line to jump into the boat. You see, not everyone wants to go to hell. Right? People don’t sin because they want to be ignorant or scripturally illiterate or because hell is such a great place that they cannot wait to get in.

    People go to hell because they love their sin more than they love Jesus Christ. Given the choice which to give up, they would give up Jesus Christ rather than give up sin. If possible, they would prefer to go through life enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin right up to the last minute and repent one second before going off into eternity. I think if we knew the exact time of Jesus’ return or the exact time of our death, hardly any would repent. Sin has a way of taking possession so that we’re either possessed by Jesus Christ or we’re possessed by Satan through sin. And the question is “If we had any time left to give to God rather than to sin, would we give it to God, or would we give it to sin?” Surrendering to Christ is a very serious committment, and that seriousness won’t be brought about by squeezing our eyebrows together or our hands together in prayer or gritting our teeth with more intensity or anything of the kind. Sin dies a horribly violent death struggling and fighting to stay alive within us. But, to live to Christ is to die to sin. We will love God or love Mammon. We’ll surrender to God, or we’ll attempt to swindle God. But, the one who owns us, who gets our faith, our trust, our obedience of our heart fully will be our Lord today and tomorrow for all eternity. And we must choose this day who we will serve. Will it be our flesh? Will we say, “I surrender all” and lie to God as Ananias and Sapphira did? Or will we say, “I surrender all” as a true statement? Or will we say honestly we’re holding back and need to surrender throwing ourselves entirely on the grace of God for our salvation?

    When we evangelize what will we do? Will we be satisfied just to get a sense of false comfort for ourselves pleased that someone rattled off a prayer and that we ran out the routine of telling that person they have been saved when in fact we really have no right to assume that at all? Will we be irresponsible with the souls of others? Are we looking for kudos or crowns for Jesus to lay at His feet? Would we gamble our own salvation on the reality of their salvation? Would we gamble our children’s salvation or our parents’ salvation on whether the ones we lead to Christ are really saved or not or whether they have been truly faced with the choice whether to surrender to Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior or not?

    Or have we ever truly led a single person to the Lord?

    Have we experienced the power of prayer to reach the lost and open the hearts of the lost? Have we watched the wonderful power of the Holy Spirit touch someone we thought nobody could touch?

    Will one more person enter into heaven through our prayers and sharing? Just one? If you had the choice between one and two, which would you choose? Two or three? If it’s just the difference of one soul, how far would you go in prayer for wisdom and for God’s grace and for the Holy Spirit to open that person’s heart to the Gospel and seek God? And would you share?

    Would you do it? Would you do it if that person was your own child or your own parent or your spouse or your cousins or friends? Or would you let them perish into hell without a prayer?

    Do we love our cowardice more than we love our most beloved ones? Do we keep our sin rather than come close to God in prayer?

    I hope you understand I am totally speaking to myself, too, when I bring up these things. I can choose to be silent and let things remain as they are, or I can speak up and challenge others knowing I will have to bear the brunt of this challenge as well. But, that should be true of all of us. We need to step up and step out and trust God and obey God. But, that cannot happen if we don’t love Him.

  5. The muscles have atrophied and the therapy to regain strength is long-term and important. Of course, we could pray for healing in the name of Jesus and see the church rise up and walk – but I digress.

    80% of people in our churches want to learn – great. How many want to show up when we offer a time of teaching?

    Well, Sunday morning is the time – good idea. How do you engage in Sunday messages at the personal level where you can truly encourage and set up some accountability (Wesley had it right with classes and bands).

    I agree with what you are saying – and it’s NOTHING NEW! We have identified the problem time and again. We have discussions with clergy and laity about how we move forward faithfully – and the talk is always the same. We need to move beyond identifying the problem and start living out the answers. But, be forewarned, even those who say they want these things will balk and bellow when pushed to engage.

    There is a key aspect I know needs to be addressed in my church and others. It’s developing leaders who live this life of discipleship and engage in these areas. It’s teaching them to teach others. Until we have strong leaders who claim their identity as true followers of Jesus Christ, who live a spiritually vital life of prayer, stewardship, Scriptural knowledge and holiness, evangelism – until we have those leaders we will struggle to move beyond where we are.

    The pastor cannot bring about the needed changes alone (and at times the pastor is not making the needed changes happen personally in his or her own life). It has been told to me time and again – as a pastor the best thing I can do to grow the Kingdom (in all ways) is to invest a good bit of my time in leaders. To do this I must build up my own spiritual capital so I can share with others that they may build up their spiritual capital and thereby share with others that they may build up their spiritual capital and thereby share with others… you get the idea.

    It will not happen in a day – unless its a day like Pentecost and the Spirit moves powerfully to ignite the passions of the people. But, even as we talk about how little people know about and rely on the Holy Spirit we don’t talk about such things as one of the answers. Therein lies the problem.

    On a final note – my sermon this week was already set to be on focusing on the 3rd part of the Apostle’s Creed – “I believe in the Holy Spirit…”

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