“I was not trained to change peoples’ lives, but to change their membership affiliations.” From the first time I heard Gil Rendle say this, the truth immediately struck home and matched my own experience in ministry.
Nearly thirty years ago, I served as an intern pastor to learn the practice of ministry. A lay-led team met each Monday evening in a home to divide up index cards with the names and addresses of recent visitors to the church. Volunteers went in pairs to visit these prospective members.
As we reported back, we talked about “prospective members.” We heard stories of people new to our community who held membership from United Methodist congregations in other cities, or who belonged to other denominations. The volunteer director of the Monday Visitors would carefully note membership and record attendance until it was time to talk about transfer. Very few prospects had no experience in the church. We focused on changing memberships.
The intentional follow-up placed this congregation ahead of its time. Several implicit assumptions undergirded this approach: we lived in a Christian culture where everyone had some experience in belonging to a church; our work was to support their move toward a decision about membership transfer; and, if they joined and completed a pledge card, the shaping influence of the Holy Spirit through congregational affiliation would positively impact their lives. Everyone came by transfer, and we seldom recorded a profession of faith.
When I graduated from seminary, I patterned my own practices accordingly. I remember countless visits to the homes of prospective members on Sunday evenings. We delivered bread or plants. We provided literature about our ministries and welcomed people. My focus was still directed at membership affiliations.
As we reached more young adults, however, we discovered that many had never belonged to a church, and neither had their parents before them. There was no membership to transfer!
People entered into our community of faith, not desiring to change their membership, but to be shaped by our ministries. They’d sing with the choir, serve on a Habitat for Humanity-type project, or sign up for a Bible study. We created a low-threshold for entry into our ministries while developing a higher threshold understanding of membership.
While we didn’t call it that at the time, we created a robust discipling system. Nearly two hundred people worked through Disciple Bible Study, and more than two hundred attended Emmaus weekends. Nearly two hundred offered themselves to hands-on mission projects, and through lay-coordinated Consecration Sundays, we developed a pool of people who became articulate about expressing how giving related to their spiritual life. Most of our core leaders experienced all four of these life-changing ministries. Our most visionary new ministries resulted from the committed, spiritually mature leaders who were formed by these experiences. Lives were changed, and through them God changed the community and world around us.
What do we really hope happens because someone belongs to a United Methodist congregation? What’s the end and purpose we pray for? What does the church exist to do? Belonging to the body of Christ, with time, mysteriously causes us to become a different person, with more depth, peace, and courage. We become more hopeful, more thankful, less reactive, gentler, more patient, more resilient, less angry, better able to relate. We attend to others with greater compassion. We more readily offer ourselves in service to God and neighbor. We care for those whom we may formerly have overlooked. We grow in grace, and in the knowledge and love of God. Sometimes the differences are nuanced and the progress seems imperceptibly slow, like someone taking yoga classes who appears the same from the outside, but who has developed within them a greater flexibility, smoother breathing, and increased circulation. The change is real, but hardly discernible to other people. Other times, the change noticeably reshapes outward behaviors. Slow or fast, unrevealed or dramatic—God uses our belonging to the body of Christ to change us from the inside out.
Gil Rendle suggests that vibrant organizations “must learn to be steady in purpose but flexible in strategy.” Long-established congregations and conferences risk becoming so steady in strategy that they lose focus of their purpose (Journey in the Wilderness, 23).
Many of our churches still operate on assumptions from a previous era, and they hold to strategies that no longer work. We expect good Christians to move into our communities, visit our Sunday services, and want to join. But most people around us are seeking something other than membership; they are seeking authentic community, profound purpose, a deeper spirituality, and ways to make a difference with their lives. They are seeking the changed life that comes through belonging to Christ.
The Call to Action invites us to intentionally focus on the mission and impact of our local church ministries. Intentional means having a plan in mind. It refers to our determination to having a purpose to what we do and to developing the right strategies to support the purpose. Intentional derives from Latin words meaning to stretch out for, to aim at. Intentional ratchets up commitment and consistency of effort.
God uses congregations to change peoples’ lives, and through changed lives, God changes the world. That’s a purpose worth preserving, even if we have to change our strategies.
How would you express the purpose of your congregation? What do you hope happens because someone enters into the life of your church? How does God use your congregation to change lives?
Which ministries of your conference help congregations lead people to active faith in Christ? How fair and reasonable is it to expect that our general church, conference, and congregational strategies align with a clear purpose?
For further focus, reflect on several stories of Jesus that come immediately to mind, and consider how lives are changed by his presence. Or read Romans 12:1-3 from The Message for a refreshing interpretation of a favorite passage.
For helpful insights into these topics, read Gil Rendle’s Journey in the Wilderness, or his newest book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement.