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COMMENTARY: Are we changing lives or merely affiliations? Bishop Robert Schnase, Sep 1, 2010
Bishop Robert Schnase
By Bishop Robert Schnase Special Contributor
Recently I heard church leadership consultant Gil Rendle say, “I was not trained to change people’s lives, but to change their membership affiliations.” Gil, who serves with the Texas Methodist Foundation, captures how our understanding of the church and pastoral ministry has evolved over the last few generations.
This insight brought a rush of memories about how I learned to invite and welcome people into the life of the church.
When I served my seminary internship as an associate pastor, our congregation offered a ministry called EmVees, which stood for Monday Visitors. Lynn Day led the program. Lynn was a gracious and spiritually grounded laywoman who loved her volunteer work with the church.
Each Monday evening she would host four to six active laypersons in her home and distribute cards with the names of first-time visitors who had attended church the day before. The names were taken from the registration pads used during worship. She’d tell everything she knew about each person on the cards and lead us in prayer.
Then the Monday Visitors would leave in pairs to visit the visitors at their homes. We’d step into people’s homes, sit down with them for a few minutes, learn something about their faith background, tell them about our church and invite them back.
As a newbie pastor, I served as an EmVees visitor nearly every Monday, teaming up with a different layperson each week. We’d reconvene back at Lynn’s house and report on our visits. Lynn would record the information, make notes on the cards and report the next day to the pastor.
This was an excellent 1980s way of following-up with visitors. We were hoping that people who had moved to our area from another city, or who had become inactive in another church or who had little church experience would change their membership affiliation, or reactivate or initiate their membership by joining our church.
Our focus was helping people decide to join us. When someone stood before the congregation and repeated the membership vows, we would celebrate, remove their cards from our files and our work was completed. Deeper goals and hopes were implicit; our work was based on the assumption that joining a church was good for people’s lives and would have a positive effect over time.
I learned much from those visits, and if all United Methodist churches of that era had been as active in their follow-up, our denomination would be immeasurably stronger today.
As my ministry matured through the years, the congregations I served developed greater systems for follow-up, many of them based on these early experiences.
Today, expectations are different. The explicit mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Membership itself has limited inherent value, and seems to many to serve the purposes of the institution rather than the spiritual growth of the person. The most vital number for assessing a congregation is attendance rather than membership; being “an active attendee” is more valued than being “an inactive member.”
The goal of invitation, welcome, hospitality and assimilation is not merely to change people’s affiliations but to change their lives. The goal is to help people deepen their spirituality and further their relationship to Christ through the ministries of the church.
Worship, Bible study, Sunday school, mission projects, women’s ministries, youth groups, teaching the personal practices of prayer—these are the means that help us cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our growth in Christ. Churches that are growing have learned that ministry is about a way of life, not merely a membership pledge.
How do we organize our ministries so they support that way of life? Personal transformation precedes the transformation of the world. People who capture a vision of life in Christ become motivated to serve, seek justice, love peace, forgive others and take on the ministry of reconciliation. They become ambassadors for Christ.
How is your congregation reimagining and redesigning ministry to change people’s lives, rather than merely their affiliations? How are you learning to do ministry differently?