United Methodist Membership Vows

Church membership is an interesting topic to me.  As a pastor, I have visitors that come to the church, expecting to join and transfer their membership from another congregation as soon as they find the church they like.  Some visitors will visit for years and until you invite them personally to join and they do without hesitation.  Yet other visitors will visit for years and may never join officially as a member.

I don't worry about it too much.  Some of my bosses care about seeing growth in church membership, but most believe the better indicator of a healthy church is probably worship attendance and ministry participation.

For those readers who haven't been a part of a United Methodist Church before, let me tell you about the process for becoming a member.  Every church does things a little different.  Larger churches may have a membership class you take for 3 or 4 weeks before you join.  In smaller churches, like mine, you might meet with the pastor in your home or at the church office to talk about what it means to be a member.  Many churches simply give an invitation at the end of every service and anybody interested comes forward and takes the vows of membership (I think that's a little lazy and leaves room for lazy membership, but that's another post for another day).

Vows?  I'm glad you asked...

In any United Methodist Church, the pastor will ask those who wish to join two very simple questions.  First, do you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?  Second, will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?  If you can answer yes to both questions, you're in.  No hot iron branding.  No selling your soul.  No gauntlet to survive.  And you don't have to sign away all of your earthly possessions.

So what's the importance of these vows?  Glad you asked that question too... (play along)

Right now, Mt. Bethel is in a 40-day study of John Ed Mathison's Treasures of the Transformed Life.  It's our "stewardship campaign", but don't tell anybody.  In these 6 weeks of study, the devotional and Bible study topics are on our prayers, presence, gifts, and service.  More importantly, how those things that you pledged to the church when you joined are the things that nurture and transform your life as a Christian.  If you pray, avail yourself to God, give generously, and serve others, you will have a meaningful relationship with Christ.  If you have a meaningful relationship with Christ, your life will bear fruit that will lead others to that same relationship for themselves.

In other words, in pledging your loyalty to the church, you pledge loyalty to your own relationship with Jesus, which benefits you personally.  The side effect of that loyalty is a healthy church.  Interesting, huh? 

When churches are full of loyal people - people who live their vows in public and in private - those churches spend less time and effort on themselves, hoarding their resources for their own members.  Instead, churches full of loyal people are leading transformation of their communities.  They're spending their time, money, efforts, and talents on people that still need to meet Jesus.  They are meeting people where they are, becoming the answers to their own prayers and the prayers of others, and expanding the Kingdom of God.

If you're a member of a United Methodist congregation, have you ever stopped to think about what it means that you're a member?  Have you ever given serious thought to what you vowed?  Have you come to comprehend the depth of that commitment and what kind of fruitful life it brings when we are faithful to it?

If you're part of another denomination or a non-denomination, what kinds of things are expected of you as a member?  How does your faithfulness actually nurture you and define your life?

Comments: alex.stroud (at) ngumc.net


More on Permanence

My last post was about moving to something more permanent.  In the words of one of my best leaders, it may be time for this church to experience a "second order change" or "disruptive change."  It's not time to just try some new songs in worship, add a staff position, or reformat the bulletin.  It's time to truly shake things up.

As I've prayed about this and struggled over how we can make drastic changes and still be merciful and kind to those who aren't ready for major transformation, some of Christ's words keep coming back to me.

According to Mark (chapter 2), Jesus was asked why John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees were fasting regularly and his weren't.  Jesus' reply calls for new practices that are more appropriate for the times.  Jesus is with them, in the flesh, and it would be inappropriate for them to fast - instead it is a time for celebration, for learning, and for action. 

Jesus pulls this together with two of his own proverbs, and this is where it gets good.  First, the image of a new patch on an old garment.  Think of the clothes in your closet.  If you're like me, you've got a pair of jeans in there that are stretched out and comfortable.  What happens if you take a brand-new piece of denim and sow it to the old jeans?  When you wash it, that new fabric is going to shrink and pull on the old fabric.  The two won't work together. 

Then he talks about wineskins.  Wineskins were used for the fermentation of wine.  Grape juice was put into the skins and as it fermented, the gasses expanded inside, stretching the skin.  If you used the skin once, you couldn't use it again because it wasn't elastic anymore.  New wine in an old wineskin would burst it.

I think of how this compares to our lives as Christians and how it can be a powerful symbol for some of our decaying and dying churches. 

For a church that needs something major, it's not only insufficient to "patch" it with a new program, staff person, or idea, it's actually destructive to the church.  When we do this, we put off dealing with the root of our decay and treat our symptoms instead (isn't that the American way?).  We allow our problems to continue to exist and even grow, making later change even more painful and difficult.  If the garment gets too old, you can't patch it anymore - it's just time for a new pair of jeans.


ANNOUNCEMENT:  I value feedback on the stuff I write.  I'm honored that you've taken the time to read even some of my most ludicrous posts and I'm always excited to get your comments.  In ministry, we allow people to make comments privately and if we share anything, we always ask permission.  In an effort to foster that on my blog, I've removed the commenting option.  If something I've said has struck a chord with you, email me.  I promise that I won't share those comments with anyone unless you tell me I can.

So speak up!  Tell me what you think!  alex.stroud (at) ngumc.net


A Move to Permanence

I've had an interesting conversation with some of our members since we met over the weekend to discern vision for the church.  I mentioned in previous posts the difficult conversations we had.  One in particular had to do with our willingness to change.  Area demographics show people in our area have very low resistance to change, which makes sense, given that most of them are newcomers to the area and are experiencing personal change almost daily.

That one little demographic sparked some raw emotion in some people.  At first, there was joking about how the people of the church are probably represented at the other end of the spectrum - totally resistant to change.  Some saw that as callous and took objection.  I personally believe that the truth was somewhere in the middle. 

Mt. Bethel, like many churches, has tried new things over the years.  New programs are viewed as change that has been embraced.  In the case of this church, most of those new programs have lasted only a while and are added to most people's lists of "things that didn't succeed."  At the same time, I see personally, an unwillingness to change on the part of others.  New programs are embraced as long as it doesn't interfere with what we already do, dirty the floors, or require people to spend extra time doing ministry.  Some here are entrenched and are quick to point out that they have seen pastors come and go (the joys of being United Methodist), but they have been and will be the constant and they like things the way they like them.  Before you ask, yes, people have said these things directly to my face.

I've read over the last few years about the changing perception of how to approach ministry.  For years the solution to a problem was to add a program or ministry.  In many churches, this is still the case.  Eventually this model becomes cumbersome and instead of doing a few things with excellence, a church begins to do many things with mediocrity.

Mt. Bethel, over the years has fallen into this category.

What we need is a new model.  When we try to program our problems/opportunities to death, we see our programs as patches or temporary fixes.  We might try 4 different programs that have been successful elsewhere and never see any fruit from our labors.  Because they're temporary, we never grow as a church either - we simply have added appendages. 

Instead of asking "what should we do?" perhaps churches should ask "who should we be?"  That's where a powerful vision comes into play.  When we seek a new identity, we look to more permanent change - we expect transformation.  When we are becoming a new creation, as individuals and as the church, the strategies that we deploy in the name of transformation have greater importance and permanence.  The church says has a whole, "This is what we are becoming.  It's time to move ahead and everyone has a duty to be involved."  If we fail to be involved in the plans God has for us, then we are slowing down and hindering the rest of the Body.

So why are there so many churches who have tried new things, but fail to succeed?  I believe it's because we fail to recognize that we are being transformed and sanctified in community.  We fail to realize that churches are works in progress, not perfected shrines.  Instead, we need to take a lesson from Peter and put both feet out of the boat and start walking.


Retreat Recap, Part 2

I was told a few weeks ago that some of my posts might be too long, so I'm trying to break them down into shorter posts for my ADD friends.

Over the weekend, we had some hard conversations about sacrifice. I posed some tough questions and made some hard statements. The truth of the matter is that nothing God calls us to do as a church and nothing that we decide to do as a church will come without our personal, gut-wrenching sacrifice. I've asked several people over past weeks if they'd be willing to give up things - not the usual like money or time, but their honored traditions. Would you be willing to give up your Sunday school class to help start another one? Would you be willing to give up the space we use as a library (and we use that term loosely) so we could have space for some other ministries? Would you be willing to give up a traditional annual event in favor of doing something more outreach and evangelism effective?

You can guess how most people answered. When asked a direct question like that, how many people do you know who might answer "Absolutely not!"

One of Jesus' encounters that we read or hear about on a regular basis is his meeting with the rich young man. The devout man who obeyed Jewish law carefully and wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. Luke tells us [click here] that the man had great wealth and Jesus instructed him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and to follow him. With that, the man went away discouraged, because he wasn't willing to make the sacrifice.

Oh how I wish Luke would have just called him the "Rich Man" and left off the "Young" part. I think too many people might read this and chalk it up to the naïveté of youth. I believe this also speaks to the stubbornness that comes with age. Now, before you start sending me emails and leaving your comments, I've posted about age-related issues before and I'm fully aware that this may stir up some animosity. In fact, I'd like to point out that age often has very little to do with the number of years you've been living. I have a man in my congregation who embodies this stubbornness well and isn't but a few years older than me. I also have a few people who are well into their 70's and are some of the most generous, forward-thinking people I know. We also cannot neglect that this stereotype exists for a reason.

I fear that too many Christians today are going the way of the Rich Young Man. They follow all the rules, but they just aren't willing to sacrifice their treasures in this world for the sake of God's Kingdom.

Every bit of our work over the weekend will hinge on how willing people are to sacrifice. Many of our available resources aren't so available simply because they're tied up in other things. In the process, I'm convinced that someone will walk away just like the Rich Man - I pray that they would have peace and that it wouldn't get to that point, but I believe that it's an inevitability. I pray especially that their departure wouldn't cause anyone else to hesitate or waver in pursuing God's plans.


As a bonus, here's a joke for you:

Q: How many ADD/ADHD kids does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Wanna go ride bikes?

Retreat Recap, Part 1

I know that some of you have been waiting to hear how this weekend went.  If I was able to choose one word to sum things up, it would most definitely be "exhausting."  I have been reminded once again that work like this is rarely easy. 

The weekend went well.  We had around 35 adults and youth show up for our visioning retreat here at the church.  We had some excellent discussion and numerous conversations have come out of our work together.

The weekend was, at least outwardly, miracle-free.  No lightning bolts came from the heavens.  No stone tablets were carried in by any patriarchs.  But good work was done.  We did endure some difficult conversations with epic patience and we laughed at ourselves on occasion.

In the end, we came out with good feedback from a large group that our smaller team can now use to formulate our more precise core values and vision as well as begin the strategy-building process.  Hopefully, over the next 40 days (I didn't plan that, but it sure sounds good, doesn't it?) our visioning team will be able to come back to the congregation with a well-refined statement that empowers and energizes people for building our future as a church.

I've already mentioned some tense moments that came up on Saturday.  As we discussed the demographics of our congregation and compared those to the demographics of the area around the church, what I would describe as raw emotion came to the surface.  Some (2) of our participants took a defensive posture toward the conversation.  The discussion that followed, though it got us off track a little, gives me some hope.

For the first time in probably several years, some of the old, worn-out arguments that have hindered the growth and effectiveness of the church were challenged.  Members who have been silent for most of their lives began to speak up and now there is a greater buzz in the air that has become an imperative for change.  Repressed feelings about good ministries that were never given a fair chance were brought to the surface.  Laments over opportunities not siezed were shared.  Resolve to pursue our current opportunities has grown.

Will this endeavor fall flat?  I still don't know.  Before this weekend, I was convinced that by Saturday afternoon I would know one way or the other.  Now that it's D+3, I'm certain that only time will tell. 


Two Days and Counting

This has been a wild week.  Sunday, our youth led worship and did an exceptional job.  One young man displayed some gifts that made me curious - could God be calling him to ministry?

Sunday afternoon was annual evaluation time.  A two hour meeting with the committee that evaluates me boosted my ego and ended with another hour of dreaming with a couple of committee members. 

Monday morning I was still on my high from the last several weeks.  I'm seeing the unseen potential of this church and it's got me excited.  Will people see it and commit to it, or will it fall flat?

Monday night was a bad night - if it could go wrong, it did - from being stuck in traffic that made me late to a district meeting, to being embarrassed in that meeting, to being stuck in traffic on the way home and a daughter who refused to sleep that night.  Truly this was a day that brought me back down to earth, but thank God for my wife who knows how to reinflate my self-esteem.

I hardly remember yesterday.  I was tired, everything was in a haze.  I did get to play golf, so the day wasn't a total loss.

Today, I find myself gearing up for this weekend.  I'm bringing a devotion to our senior adults tomorrow over lunch and trying to get a sermon and worship service put together for Sunday.  In two days though, I'm counting on God doing something huge! 

Friday night is the kickoff of our church's visioning retreat (or whatever you want to call it).  Right now, we have about 35 adults coming, which is less than I would have wanted, but God has done great things with fewer than 35 faithful people.  We will spend some time determining what we believe about God, people, and the Church - narrowing it down to those basic truths/values that we cannot ever compromise on. 

From there, we will look at the stated mission of the church - to make disciples of all nations for the transformation of the world - then on to some demographics of our congregation and the surrounding community.  The conversation that comes out of that will begin to define what God's vision is for our church.

Pray for us.  Pray that the conversation is abundant and God-directed.  Pray for discernment, humility, and fortitude.  Pray that I can keep going - at this point I'm pretty exhausted and my nerves aren't making rest any easier.