171. Changing Lives or Changing Affiliations?

Recently I heard Gil Rendle say, “I was not trained to change people’s lives, but to change their membership affiliations.” With these words, Gil, who serves as a church leadership consultant with Texas Methodist Foundation, captures how our understanding of the purpose of the church and the task of pastoral ministry has evolved over the last couple generations.

This insight brought forth a rush of memories about how I learned to invite and welcome people into the life of the church. While serving 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 lay woman who loved her volunteer work with the church. Each Monday evening she would host four-to-six active laypersons in her home, all of whom had agreed to do this once-a-month for several months. She would welcome them early in the evening and then distribute cards with the names of visitors who had attended church for the first time the day before. The names were taken from the registrations pads used during worship. She’d tell everything she knew about each person on the cards, lead us in prayer, and 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, welcome them to our church, learn something about their faith background, tell them about our church, and invite them back. As a newbie pastor just learning the work of ministry, I attended the EmVees and served as a visitor nearly every Monday, teaming up with a different layperson each week. About ninety minutes after leaving with the cards, we’d reconvene back at Lynn’s house and we’d all report on our visits. Lynn would record the information, make notes on the cards, and report this the next day to the pastor.

This was an excellent 1980’s way of following-up with visitors. What was the goal? 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. At the point someone stood before the congregation and repeated the membership vows, we would celebrate, remove their cards from our files, and the work of the EmVees 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 had been as active in their follow-up of visitors in that era, our denomination would be immeasurably stronger today. As my ministry matured through the years, the congregations I served developed greater systems for visitor follow-up, many of them based on these early experiences.

But 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 the idea of membership 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, and 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, 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. Growing churches 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?

Yours in Christ,

Robert Schnase