These are the familiar vows of church membership in The United Methodist Church. Whenever you join a United Methodist Church, you affirm these vows of membership stating that you promise to give of yourself to the church in a holistic way.
But what if we expect too much from people? Worse yet, what if we expect the wrong things?
After 3+ years of ministry in a large, historic, urban church I’ve learned a lot not only from people who are faithful and active in the ministries of the local church — I’ve also learned a lot from the people who are no longer active. I’ve heard numerous stories, cautionary tales if you will, from people who were once active and slowly but surely were overworked and became burned out. They were asked to serve on or chair one too many committees. They were guilted into one too many pointless and unproductive meetings. They were pressured to join one too many bible study/community group/prayer group/Sunday School class. And now they’re out of the habit of attending worship regularly — they love the church and want to support it, but the seemingly never-ending work sucked too much life out of them.
Whenever I hear this story I can’t help but wonder — Do we emphasize church work in place of faithful living? When someone joins out church, are we quick to sign them up to serve on a committee or to volunteer for an activity because that’s the only way we know how to define discipleship?
Over the last 50 years, the Church has seen its place in society shift from the central station of life to just another outpost. It used to be you joined a church to make all of your social and business connections and you knew that your kids could be taught how to be decently well behaved and law-abiding people to boot. You’d hear a sermon on Sunday and you knew the Bible was an important book whether you read it regularly or not.
But things are different now. In most towns or cities of any significant size, a person joining your church will likely have their closest friends in other areas of life. With social media and the Internet, business connections happen in less personal ways and coffee shops and restaurants have become a more casual, non-threatening meeting place to discuss business. Things like sports, scouts, dance, and other edifying activities have become just as central as youth groups and children’s choir. And people’s lives are too busy to locate its central point of existence in any one place.
In other words, people by and large do not consider the church the central station of their lives anymore. Gone are the days when you can say, “So and so is here at the church whenever the doors are open.” Here are the days of, “Well let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people should prioritize their faith more. You can’t be a Christian by yourself and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” points to a shared belief that somehow you can be a Christian without the help of others. On the other hand, I’m a parent of a toddler and I know how ding dang hard it is to get anywhere. When two parents work full-time jobs the last thing they need is to be told they have to attend one more meeting or take their kid to one more practice. And church can become a life-sucking force like any other activity or commitment in life.
So is it possible to be active in the church and in your faith without being worked to death?
I think it could be.
For starters, pastors need to look long and hard at the committees that function in the local church. Do you really need all of them? Do they need to meet as often as they do? Could more work be accomplished by utilizing technology and not asking people to take 60-90 minutes out of a Tuesday evening to come to a meeting? Or better yet, can churches stop treating committee work and volunteerism as the totality of your discipleship?
Secondly, do we really need to programatize everything? Can we be a part of something without it being a weekly/monthly commitment from now until eternity? Can we be in ministry that is not so programmed and structured? Can the church find an important place in people’s lives without demanding a big chunk of a person’s schedule be devoted to whatever frivolous activity or program is going on in the church building?
Finally, Sunday morning matters a lot. Don’t let Sunday morning be a shallow, humdrum experience of worship and then tell people if they have deeper or more complicated questions, they need to join a weekly study or class. Give Sunday worship some depth. Remember that the purpose of Sunday worship is to glorify God and, in doing so, connect people with God. Life is too complicated for shallow messages and simplistic themes.
“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” does not mean signing people up for every committee seat and program idea and we should really consider new and alternative ways of helping people grow in their faith. But if you do approach it that way, I’d be willing to bet you might lose as many potential disciples as you “make.”