This past week I attended the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville. TN. It was a wonderful experience that not only stretched my understanding of discipleship but also allowed me to integrate into a community of leaders who share my convictions about the importance of discipleship as a focal point of revitalization in the church.
In considering my take-aways from the week, I found myself coming back again and again to an exchange that we had on Friday morning. Somewhere late that morning we took a few minutes to talk about what we learned over the course of the first day and a half or so. Dr. David Lowes Watson stood and shared some words that have stuck with me for the past few days. He said, “Congregations are a place where grace is already at work and where people may not have been called to be disciples…YET.” And it occured to me, everything I’ve been taught recently in my local area has been taught with the intent to build congregations. But instead of saying we’re building congregations, we call it ”making disciples.”
What if being a church member and being a disciple are NOT one in the same? And what if our local churches can house BOTH church members AND disciples?
I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not opposed to building the local church. There are organizational needs that must be met if the church is to survive. Strengthening the local church means we can offer more effective pastoral care. It also means we can proclaim the gospel week in and week out as the essential practice of evangelism (future post to come on that thought).
But meeting these needs by growing the church cannot be disguised as forming disciples–those are two separate activities.
Consider for a moment the assumption that small groups are essential in the life of the church. Most church leaders I know would agree with this statement, if for no other reason than most churches that are growing quickly have put this element into their DNA as a congregation. It’s good to be a part of a small group for many reasons. We can meet and get to know new people. We can participate in a study that enhances our knowledge and understanding of Scripture. We can even enjoy life-giving fellowship through small groups. But we have to be honest that not all small groups necessarily form disciples.
As Wesleyans we’re reminded that our movement began as one of small groups meeting outside of the worship hour in the church. But these small group had specific requirements and expectations. They were NOT necessarily small groups as we might define them today. These groups were orgainzed around a particular order of life that persons were committed to living out. They met regularly for accountability and the assurance that they had the support of a community in living this alternative lifestyle. Small groups were never meant to be used as a means to build up a congregation. Instead they were seen as a specific calling to greater depth within the life of the congregation. And often, these class meetings were gateways into the congregation. Essentially the “new order of living” served as an existential foundation for the acts of worship and giving within the life of the congregation.
I suppose one of the most crucial points I took away from this conference is that people are not disciples when they join our church. They are not disciples when they volunteer for a committees or to support activities. And this doesn’t make them any less a memeber of the local church. Being a disciple is a calling that is different than one to come and experience the grace of God. Instead, it’s one to come and “carry a cross…” dying to self that one might live in Christ. Being a disciple means we seek to order our lives in a community in such a way that we look different even in the corporate worship setting on Sunday mornings.
It’s the job of pastoral leaders to find creative ways to empower lay people to lead these groups. Pastors need to energize a lay movement that would seek to form other lay people in the ways of Christ beyond simply observing the rites of ritual and enjoying the fellowship. We need congregations, yes. But we also need covenant groups within our congregations to ensure that people who are called to be disciples will have a place of nurture, growth and accountability they can turn to. And we have to be serious about the fact that being a disciples means we dare to live differently than the status quo we observe in our affluent American churches.
Adding new church members is very important to the vitality of our organization. It’s a worthy task that we should not take lightly. But please, let’s call it what it is and stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that “making disciples” and making church members are one in the same. Church members are disciples who live in the midst of grace awaiting a call to come and die to the way they’ve always lived their lives. But they are NOT the same as disciples…and that’s okay.
[UPDATE: Here's a follow-up piece that I hope will clarify my thoughts even more]
What does it mean to be a member of a church? You see, 50 or 60 years ago church membership meant you were a member of a society of sorts. Life seemingly found its heartbeat inside the walls of the church–or at least that’s howI’ve been told it was back then. As we face declining numbers in a new century and we have reached a point where we must face facts: if life centered around the church 2 generations ago and now seems to have found its origins elsewhere, what sort of life were teaching in the first place? Did we invite people to just join a church, or did we challenge them to be disciples? I think there’s a big difference between the two.
In the United Methodist Church we define church membership as the “uniting of people to a local church through the profession of faith in God…thus making known their desire to live daily as disciples of Jesus Christ” (paragrpaph 217 UM Discipline). The question I want to raise is whether or not this has been the reality for the majority of members in the United Methodist Church.
I believe it to be everyone’s desire to want to have a vibrant faith life. But what does that mean? An intellectual assent to a set of beliefs? Or do we want people to adopt a particular way of living because of a unique set of beliefs? It’s my contention that if we want to address issues of vitality in our church we have to address issues of discipleship and the lack thereof. And, in doing so, we have to examine the realities of church membership as practiced in our local congregations.
A later paragraph in our disciple defines growth in faithful discipleship as:
“Faithful membership in the local church is essential for personal growth and for developing a deeper commitment to the will and grace of God. As members involve themselves in private and public prayer, worship, the sacraments, study, Christian action, systematic giving, and holy discipline, they grow in their appreciation of Christ, understanding of God at work in history and the natural order, and an understanding of themselves” (paragraph 218 UM Discipline).
The problem here is that this paragraph sounds great but I’m not sure it speaks to the actual realities of our local congregations. What about members who join churches for networking purposes? What about members who keep their names on the role out of family obligations? What about members who are quite content attending worship regularly but not engaging the deeper work of discipleship through small groups?
You see, congregations as a whole cannot disciple people in a meaningful way. Mass corporate worship alone cannot make disciples. So what if corporate worship is only one form of edification in the Body of Christ? And what if a person needs more than merely weekly worship to truly grow as a disciple?
I want to propose a different way of classifying membership in a local congregation: Baptized Members and Professing/Practicing Members.
A baptized member would be for of an entry-level membership. This membership type would be for newer Christians who are continuing to grow in the initial stages of Christian faith. It would could be a type for one who has been away from the church for some time and is now back rediscovering faith anew. Also, it would be a type for one who wants to affiliate and even worship in a local church but who recognizes that they do not want to delve into the depths of discipleship through small groups.
A professing member would be one who wants to “take the extra step” toward discipleship. Many churches celebrate a Wesleyan Covenant Service when they install new leaders at the beginning of a calendar year. Instituting this new way of classifying members would allow for that service to be a meaningful opportunity for baptized members to become professing members and for professing members to re-evaluate and renew their commitments. Doing this would also bring to life the words of the Wesleyan Covenant Service in a new and tangible way. Church leaders would also be selected from the ranks of professing members.
I realize that this is a bit of a long shot logistically. There are so many small churches that wouldn’t survive if the adoption of such a rigid way of selecting leaders was adopted. This would also require that many churches look at how to structurally prepare for professing members to have a place to grow in Wesleyan Small Groups. That might even mean creating new places for the first time.
But there are pluses to this idea. For starters, it’s more Wesleyan than the methods of membership accountability in place now among most Methodist Churches. Too often we reduce membership to a process that reflects something about as challenging as joining a civic club. One can merely take a pledge of membership and they’re in. The great hope is that this pledge comes with a built-in desire to “pay dues” in the form of financial offerings. But we may or may not see these folks over the course of the year.
What I’m proposing doesn’t deny anyone the ability to join by affiliation, be exposed to worship and the sacraments (the means of grace) or give. What it does do is challenge professing members by requiring habitual practice of the means of grace (works of piety AND works of mercy) and participation in at least one small group for support and accountability for discipleship.
In other words, if discipleship is the great “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussions of church vitality, then let’s get serious and talk about it in ways to both address the reality we’re in and pushes us “on towards perfection.”
**I’m indebted to Steve Manskar for engaging me in a discussion that brought me to this working theory**
One of the struggles in how we practice evangelism in the church is a problem of perspective. It’s not a pleasant thing to admit that too often the evolution of the church has mirrored that of the world. As Christians in a Western, capitalistic, and American context this is especially true. My denomination, The United Methodist Church, is in the middle of a heated and ongoing battle over the methods of addressing measured decline over the last 50 years or so. As I’ve argued before, the ways we practice evangelism should be at the forefront of this discussion if it’s to have any substantive meaning. Discussions of measurements and dashboards creates a statistical malaise whereby we sacrifice authentic faithfulness for management (or better yet corporate-America) based ideas.
How can we rescue the practice of authentic and faithful evangelism from such an inevitable demise?
For starters, we can talk about perspective. The Christian faith is, at its heart, a faith that lives in expectancy. Ours is a story that proclaims in Jesus Christ, the One who is to come at the culmination of time broke into human history to offer us a peak at what God’s restoration of the world looks like. In Christ we’re offered a glimpse into what a new heaven and new earth will look like when they conjoined together (See Rev. 21:1-6). If evangelism is the witness and communication of the Christian message to the world, this is our message to communicate: that in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling the world and making new all things. In its essence this is a story with major implications for the future of the world (and the church for that matter).
Unfortunately we tend to shy away from this sort of eschatological, or end-time, talk. Maybe it’s because writers like Tim LaHaye have ruined the language for everyone by turning it into a million-dollar industry of literalism and narrow readings of Scripture? But surely we can’t only blame the Left Behind series for our lack of gumption when it comes to speaking of the Christian message in future-oriented terms.
In my experience and studies I’ve encountered two major temptations that lead us away from talking about Christian faith in future language. On the one hand, we can separate God’s salvation from this life and world. This is the classic bend toward using salvation as a means to declare where one will spend eternity after they leave this world. Beyond the eternal, there is not much substance in the Christian message other than the assurance (or insurance) that we won’t spend eternity in hell. On the other hand, we can become so enthralled by the ushering in of the “new earth” through worldly involvement we ignore the call to be on guard because we don’t really know when the time will be that the new heaven and earth will finally replace what we know now (see Mark 13:33). On either count human idealism takes the place of authentic Christian hope because it places faith in the assurances of human endeavors. We either ensure our future in next life with the first understanding or we ensure that heaven comes to earth through our own ingenuity with the second understanding. Either way we live and die by what we can accomplish in the name of faith rather than living and dying in the expectancy that there is a story beyond anything we could ever create alone.
Our best hope is to witness to this story in the life of discipleship transformed by the reality that in Christ, God has reconciled and is continuing to reconcile the world to God. We work for the restoration of the world but we do so in participating with the work God has already and is continuing to do. We don’t act out of some utopian ideology but rather with the humility that comes in being a follower of Jesus Christ. Further, we have a concern with our personal salvation but that cannot come at the expense of the social witness the gospel demands of all disciples.
All of this makes me question the faithfulness of measuring congregational vitality in terms of numbers alone. On the one hand, this practice would do well to be instituted for organizational needs. Clergy accountability and congregational accountability might go a long way to tightening up and ensuring a strong organizational restructure. These practices can lead to a much-needed change in how we operate as an organization.
But shouldn’t we be honest about the intent here and stop masking our organizational needs as theological needs? Shouldn’t we come clean that our organizational needs are products of being an American denomination and are not necessarily the same as being a faithful body of witnesses? And shouldn’t we just own up to the fact that we would rather talk about numbers, money, and bottom-line values because we’re a heck of a lot more comfortable and better versed in these matters than matters of authentic Christian hope in a future not-yet fully realized?
Maybe our real prayer as a denomination shouldn’t be for the end or the beginning of dashboards and measurements. Maybe our real prayer should be for the gumption to be honest about what we’re really trying to do in instituting them. And in doing so, maybe we have an inkling of hope in addressing the real needs we have as a church. Organizational needs are always founded in an economy of scarcity and competition. But future-oriented hope is always founded in an economy of abundance. Can both economies coexist? Probably so. But for God’s sake, let’s prayerfully know the difference between the two!
With all of our talk of being vital congregations, have we ever thought to sit down and really question how we practice evangelism in our local churches and across the denomination? If evangelism is our initial point of exposure to the Christian community, then surely that would be a good place to start our conversations about congregational vitality. And if we’ve seen a decline in involvement across the denomination across the last 40 years or so, then isn’t it time to ask hard questions of how we approach our practices of sharing faith with others?
To evangelize means literally to offer “good news” or a “welcome message.” To speak of this as a Christian practice means we have to analyze how the good news is proclaimed in and through the entire life of the church. I am proposing that now, more than ever, we take very seriously the question of how to most faithfully offer the good news of God in the world.
The resource, Faith Sharing by Dr. Eddie Fox and Dr. George Morris, offers an approach to evangelism that seeks to prioritize it as the essential practice of the church. If the church exists for the proclamation of the gospel, then evangelism is thought to be at the heart of what it means to be the church. This books has been widely-used across our denomination for many years. However, I would like to offer some serious critiques of the views offered in this books in light of what it means to rethink evangelism as a faithful practice of the church.
In actual practice it can be difficult to see the view proposed in Faith Sharing as very much beyond a propositional approach. We “offer people Christ” expecting a response. The book even co-opts terms like “relational evangelism,” that describe “faith sharing” as little more than a relationship with an agenda. Make no mistake, however, any relationship built directly on an underlying agenda is not a relationship but is instead a sales pitch.
I think it’s now time that we ask tough questions about our institutional language of evangelism that speaks in volumes about people “making decisions for Christ” and then offers very little in terms of Wesleyan sanctification as the means for one’s life being transformed. I’m choosing to highlight the shortcomings of Faith Sharing but there are many other resources that follow a similar approach. “Winning souls” means nothing without the hard task of a transformed life. Too often we speak of conversion as an event with the life that follows simply being one of only “trusting in Jesus.” The funny thing is we tend to leave it ambiguous while we concentrate on the “conversion event” more. Wesleyan evangelism that does not include a vivid description of Wesleyan discipleship is not Wesleyan at all. And discipleship that does not speak to the formative practices of the church, the need for small group accountability and the process of becoming more than just a member of a church is not discipleship at all.
Rather than a model based on a linear formula, why can’t we describe evangelism as the witness of all of our Christian practices? It’s not about accumulating more members as much as it’s about faithfully practicing the Christian life in such a way that others will be drawn to it. In fact, if we practice Christianity well, it will often turn people off more than it might turn people on to such a peculiar way of life.
Why can’t we tell the Christian narrative with room for someone to doubt? The Christian narrative isn’t some set of beliefs that we offer others in the hopes that they might “buy into” what we’re convinced of. It’s an invitation to take part in a journey that requires trust, humility and friends to help us along the way. It’s also one that requires a practice of evangelism to be both the gateway into a life of discipleship as well as the fruits of that life when it’s proclaimed in living color. Instead of beginning “where others are” in the hopes that we can lead them to where we are, why can’t we see evangelism as a means to begin where others are in the hope that together, God will lead us all into new and exciting places through mutual love and edification?
Please hear me that I’m not advocating for a “live and let live” approach to evangelism that would seek to hide from our calling to share the gospel with all people. But I am advocating that we seriously look at how we share the good news in a faithful way. This may or may not produce the most church members, but it will surely yield the most disciples. Either way, it’s a discussion that we need to have in our local churches, annual conferences and across the denomination lest we get caught in the undertow of desperation caused by decline.
As Wesleyan Christians we’re called to a life of study, sacrifice, social engagement, radical inclusion, and mutual accountability. One might rather say that our evangelism comes from a life, expressed in word and deed, which points to a radical way of existing in this world. And that can’t be shared faithfully if it’s boiled down to a simplistic formula and sold as some sort of commodity on the Christian market.
Before we jump to a reality of “vital congregations” can we please ask some hard questions about how we share our faith? It’s past time that we critically look at our practices of evangelism if we’re to have any hope of seeing where God might be leading us, the people called Methodists, in a new and exciting time of being the church.
Part of the crisis happening in the mainline church is that we’re losing membership. It’s as though we’ve got holes in the hull of our ship and the patches we fashioned years ago have slowly deteriorated, growing from small leaks to very large gaping holes. A couple of the major areas this is showing up is in when we look at worship attendance and giving trends.
As part of my ongoing process of (re)defining what it means to practice evangelism, I want to explore what it means to address the needs of a denomination struggling to sustain a particular way of life, and how it’s important that we ultimately draw distinctions between the practice of evangelism and what it means to recruit new members.
Mike Breen notes, “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (“Building a Discipling Culture, Zondervan Press, 2009). And yet the subtle undertones of all of the talk these days has to do with the decline in membership in our local churches. I want to say from the outset that this is not intended to be a soapbox against numbers. It’s not even meant to be an argument against church growth, per se. The distinctions drawn here are to illustrate that the practice of evangelism and the recruitment of new members are more effectively implemented when they are regarded as two different, and distinct, features of ministry in the local setting.
One could say that it’s in our DNA as United Methodists and Wesleyan Christians to view this as an obvious distinction. It’s been said that Wesley himself reduced the membership rolls of early Methodist societies to distinguish the idea that numbers and faithfulness in commitment are often two different concepts. A major question we face as a 21st Century mostly American institution is, what does it mean to join a church?
David Lowes Watson notes:
Membership in the church is regarded by most churchgoers in the U.S. as a commitment. It is a commitment, however, to the church as it functions in the culture–a place where fellowship can be sought…emotional and spiritual needs met…moral standards can be affirmed…and where God can be worshipped.
As a measure of organizational needs, it’s important to see membership stats as very important. But the question of faithfulness in the living out of the message of faith begs a different response. In other words, membership emphases can only take us so far into constructing a vision of faithfulness in proclaiming and living the gospel story. But when we merge the practice of evangelism with the recruitment of church members, the effectiveness of a church becomes measured strictly by the growth in membership rather than by its faithfulness to proclaiming the good news of the gospel through the words and life of the community.
It’s very important that these two areas of ministry remain separate because it can be very easy to inadvertently mistake salvation found in the good news of the gospel for a salvation found in the church itself. A church centered on fostering a self-centered and self-serving mindset of survival at any cost has inevitably crossed the line in misappropriating the practice of evangelism as simply the recruitment of new members that will sustain the life of the organization. Furthermore, when the recruitment of new members becomes the sole focus of our evangelism, then we inevitably allow the gospel to morph into whatever is attractional in order to gain more members. We refuse people the right to say “no” by not offering the space to refuse the invitation. Recruiting members is very important to meet organizational needs but it must be done so as an off-shoot of what it means to practice evangelism on a larger, communal level.
If evangelism is to be understood as a practice of the church, it must be understood as a practice much larger than that which would seek to simply grow the church numerically. The practice of evangelism speaks to the very nature a community exists embodying the virtues of the body of Christ–generosity to all, radical inclusion, the confession and forgiving of sins, sharing of mutual goods, and a peaceful orientation to the world around us. This is a witness made to the world that is both invitational and faithful.
Next Post: Sharing Faith–It’s More Than a Sales Pitch
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a baseball fan. Baseball is a wonderful analogy for life and faith: it takes a team effort to win games; home runs happen but they’re rare, more often than not we’re dependent on our teammates to get us home; “home” is both where we start and also our destination. I could go on but you get the picture. As I continue to study and reflect on the practice of evangelism I would like to use baseball (at least how it’s depicted in movies) to illustrate both a right and a wrong way to practice evangelism in our local churches.
Alasdair MacIntyre defines a practice as:
any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity (After Virtue, 1984, p. 187)
To better understand this definition of practice, I turn to the work of Bryan Stone who breaks this definition offered by MacIntyre into four characteristics of how to understand a practice:
What does this mean for evangelism in The United Methodist Church? For starters, it means we have to decide whether we’ll practice evangelism with what I call a “Field of Dreams” approach or a “Major League” approach.
You’ll remember the great speech by James Earl Jones where he tells the stirring account of how baseball has both evolved with and transcended American history. The story of baseball is presented as something larger than any particular team, league, or event. It is that which was here before we were and it will move forward into the future even after we’re gone. What Ray had to do, in essence, was simply have faith that his project would stir something in the hearts of those others–so much so they would come from far and wide to experience it. The character Terrance’s speech speaks to the fact that even on our best days we can only simply hope to participate in and witness to something grander than we are as individuals. Baseball, in its purest form, is the grand vision Ray’s park hopes to witness to. And Terrance reminds us that when this is done faithfully, people will come–they won’t be able to stay away.
The “Major League” approach is very different. It’s a great movie that tells the tale of an inspiring team who, when they band together, can out perform themselves in order to keep from being sold away. It’s an entertaining account of a bunch of misfits who learn to work together, amid the vast diversity present, for a higher goal. In the end they triumph over great odds to achieve their goal.
On the surface this sounds like a worthy analogy for the church in its practice of evangelism. But we need to go back to MacIntyre’s understanding of a practice because there’s a difference between a practice being “good” and being “faithful.”
The “goods internal” to a practice help to define the practice itself. The practice of baseball requires particular goods such as hitting, throwing, pitching, and fielding. To practice it well, you must be able to perform these activities at a particular level. It’s the combination of these activities, within a certain set of rules and standards, that dictates how faithfully you can play baseball.
If evangelism is a practice then it too can be understood as employing a number of skills and activities. But, just like with baseball, you cannot reduce the practice of evangelism to any one of these activities and you have to judge it in terms of how well all of the activities serve the overall practice.
On the other hand, there are activities that we can call external to a practice. For example, The Atlanta Braves are external to the practice of baseball. You can be a fan of the Braves and they can spark your love for the game. But the Atlanta Braves do not define baseball because the game, in essence, will go on even if the Braves no longer existed. In terms of evangelism there are external goods as well. Church growth, buildings, and increased budgets are examples of external goods in the practice of evangelism. They are worthy aspects that can help us appreciate the practice of evangelism.
But there’s a big temptation to make our external goods the ends, or goals, we seek in our practice. If external goods become the aim of our practice, the practice will lose its integrity, and the virtues required for excellence, or faithfulness, will be replaced by a drive for “effectiveness.” External goods can often be measured whereas internal goods can only be appreciated and cultivated, much like art. Therefore one of the most important tasks we have in understanding any practice is distinguishing the difference between internal and external goods.
This distinction doesn’t set one against the other. But it does require us to prioritize the importance various aspects of how we practice evangelism. If, as United Methodists, we are called to lives marked by holiness of heart and life (John Wesley’s terminology), then we must decide what is more important, growth in numbers, power and prestige or growth in the faithfulness of how we live as the church. The emphasis on numbers and growth, while an important emphasis, inevitably leads us down a road similar to the Cleveland Indians in Major League. We’re playing for the preservation of what we already have. On the other hand, the emphasis on being a church marked by an emphasis on holiness of heart and life calls us to participate in a grander vision of God’s ongoing activity in the world. This is an activity that will live long after our buildings, budgets, and members are gone. And it is a participation that, if done faithfully and with the right perspective, will inevitably draw people around us closer as we are drawn closer to the heart of God’s transforming presence in our world.
[I am indebted to my good friend and "office next door neighbor", Rev. Tommy Perkins, who gave me the movie analogies during one of our conversations where he lets me interupt his work to banter about these sorts of topics]