Understanding Where We Come From
Ellettsville First UMC is a small town church. That has a specific meaning, as well as several associations in people's minds.
The small town was the engine of American society in the post-Civil War era, up until the Great Depression. American social values, innovations and economic growth (the small business), etc. came from the small town. Sinclair Lewis lampooned the small town in Main Street – and Helen Hooven Santmeyer defended it in And Ladies of the Club – but both only serve to underscore its iconic nature.
In the small town, there would typically be one main congregation of each denominational type: First Church. First Church never grew into the big deal that the Downtown First Church of the city did, but it shared its essential nature. In effect, each little First Church, of whatever denominational background, was a microcosm of the town itself. This was not necessarily true of the small denominations, which tended to attract only certain segments of the population. Even among the First Churches of a given small town, some would be higher or lower as regards in the social clout or wealth of their members than other First Churches, but the social spread within each First Church would still be considerable.
But no other kind of congregation will have the sheer variety of members than the small town First Church. Both wealthy and working poor mingle in its pews and serve on the same committees, for instance. Everywhere else, in both urban and rural churches, people have self-selected into congregations where everybody is like everybody else – whether we're talking about worship style, doctrine, educational level, socio-economic status, hobbies, or political affiliation. But in the small town (particularly where it has retained its own high school!), the people who played ball on the same team and attended the same dances as teenagers do not feel it odd to attend the same church.
What this means is that niche-marketing – so often advocated as the answer for declining churches – is not easily done in a congregation which is so broadly based. Even though the number of participants and leaders may have only a small percentage of those who grew up here and remember "the old days," nevertheless, the culture of the congregation is a legacy from days of yore. To define a mode of ministry that "sells" to some desired demographic will alienate a large number of current participants. To be sure, you could redesign the church's ministries to attract and hold a particular kind of parishioners, but you would have to face a terrible hemorrhage of attendance and giving before you would see any results to justify the attempt.
So, for the small town church to thrive, it must address the needs of the entire community, not just one small segment of it. This is a tall order for its limited resources. It is also a difficult thing to do when the small town from which it derives its identity is so fragmented that the residents often do not perceive much sense of community amongst themselves.
Churches with a clear understanding of who they are, doctrinally or ecclesiastically, tend to navigate these waters a bit better. The long-time residents are able to articulate their sense of belonging – to that Church – better than those who are simply "culturally" Methodist, or Presbyterian, or whatever. And new residents looking for a church, who often have no sense of "town" at all, can figure out where they want to be looking more easily.
But then we have to face the lack of a clear identity for Methodism itself. Simply put, there is little "brand recognition" for "UMC." And this is not just a problem for those seeking a church! Those within The UMC often have radically different views of what that "brand" means. There are liberal UM churches, conservative UM churches, UM churches that feature Praise & Worship music, others that think only a Bach prelude will do, etc. In too many UM congregations, the doctrine is whatever the current preacher says; the cumulative effect of too-frequent pastoral transitions is that the members have been exposed to all the church fads and every sort of doctrine and there is no unifying teaching or practice coming from either pulpit or pew that defines who we are. We are everything, as we are everybody.
This amorphous character has meant that we are often the "compromise" church for newcomers. Newlyweds of radically different church backgrounds often choose us precisely because we are plastic enough to encompass what they are trying to be, without saying either of their traditions was wrong. We also get a significant number of "refugees," people fleeing the strictures or wackiness of their previous faith traditions. This is great, but it also means that we tend to get a lot of people as members who only get passionate about not getting passionate about anything – because for them religious passion = painful experiences.
So far, I could be describing almost any small town church in the Midwest; however, the cultural background of Southern Indiana, and Monroe County in particular, has to be taken into consideration. We are the very epicenter of the Bible Belt. Baptists and (especially) Restorationists (Church of Christ, Christian Church, etc.) are very prominent here. They form the main stratum of Ellettsville's religious culture. Leaving aside for the moment St. John's RC Church, most of the churches in the community are either of this sort or of the independent, non-denominational evangelical and/or charismatic variety. By comparison (or maybe default), EFUMC is the most "liberal" or "high church" congregation in Ellettsville (though there is a small Lutheran congregation trying to establish itself). So, if we are looking to promote a revival here, trying to out-evangelicalize the other churches of the community will only make us one more congregation competing for the same target group.
It might be a natural idea to play against type and try to establish ourselves as the "liberal" church in the community (in style or doctrine or both). On the other hand, considering Ellettsville as part of Monroe County means that we have to be considered against the background of all the churches in Bloomington. People who really want to be a part of the radical-liberal edge, church-wise, have only a few minutes' drive to all sorts of happenin' congregations. EFUMC could never compete with those large, successful liberal congregations. If nothing else, we would fail to bring along the large number of small town folk who form the backbone of our congregation.
All this is not meant to be negative, merely to head off easy answers that always occur at the first impulse to any brainstorming group. Our situation is that we must a) minister to a wide variety of people, b) without an agreed-upon, easily-communicated sense of who we are, c) while avoiding an ecclesiastical me-too-ism in which we would always be a second choice.
So, Where Do We Need to Go?
If we are going to avoid getting bogged down in the swamp of niche-marketing and cultural identity or following the false treasure map of easy ideas and fads, then we need to return to the Basics. In other words, the main thing is to keep the Main Thing the main thing; once that's taken care of, we can return to those questions raised in the first section.
1. The Primary Task of the Church is a fourfold process. It is not four tasks, but only one task, which is not complete in anybody until all four aspects of it have been accomplished. Thereafter, one is a disciple and ought to go about implementing the Primary Task in whatever manner God calls one to do.
As defined by GBOD, "The Primary Task of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ by
a) reaching out and receiving new people,
b) helping them relate their lives to God-in-Christ,
c) teaching them the faith and nurturing them in their discipleship,
d) and sending them out into the world to serve God."
My contention is that if we concentrate on the primary task, lesser tasks will tend to take care of themselves. All of our programs, without exception, need to be evaluated in the light of the Primary Task of the Church. If it doesn't advance some part of that Task, then why are we doing it? And if it used to advance some part of the Task, but has wandered off into existing for some other reason, it needs to be brought back to its original direction or left to die on the vine. We have too few resources to spare to waste them on maintaining programs and institutions which do not advance the Primary Task of the Church.
Reaching out and receiving new people is everything we do that helps people find us, feel welcomed by us, and return to enjoy our fellowship and participate in our common life.
Helping them relate their lives to God-in-Christ is done by the preacher and various teachers by explaining the meaning of salvation and life in Christ. It is furthered by the articulate and timely witness of members who are not shy to speak about their commitment to Christ and how they came to it.
Teaching them the faith and nurturing them in their discipleship is done through preaching and teaching, but also through shared experiences where mature disciples and beginners reflect upon their lives and acts of ministry. We should also remember here what D.L. Watson calls "the General Rule of Discipleship" –
to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ through acts of Worship, Devotion, Compassion, and Justice.
We need to offer people opportunities to learn their doctrine, to study the Bible, to learn to pray, to expand their giving, and so forth.
Sending them out into the world to serve God is done through the many acts of ministry organized by the congregation and its sub-groups. We send our money out to do some of this, but it is also important that we take people from our midst physically and let them confront (and heal) some of the world's hurts.
You will notice that I have said little here about "meeting people's needs" – a common first step in coming up with a ministry plan. Meeting people's needs is legitimate, but it must rapidly involve people in meeting others' needs, or it becomes a service-industry kind of ministry which is self-limiting. It creates a congregation of customers, not of ministers. Too many congregations are full of consumers of ministry, leaving only an overworked few to be producers of ministry. But when you involve people – including the very young – right from the start in doing good works in God's name, you wind up meeting their (social and child care and spiritual) needs while at the same time helping them become persons of power in their own right (disciples) with whom you share a bonding sort of experience.
The incarnation is a pattern, not merely an event. We are to incarnate the love of God in what we do, and invite others to do it with us. Jesus is "God with us." But we are to do his works, so we are to be "God with us," too. Jesus said, "You give them something to eat." He sent the disciples out, two-by-two, to preach the kingdom of God and cast out demons. Sending money is important, but sending people and money is far better.
What all this boils down to is, we need to differentiate ourselves from all the churches who think discipleship is "putting seats in the seats" and whose main activity is "selling the Gospel." We are not trying to attract customers – of whatever description – but companions. We have a task to fulfill, and there is plenty of room for people who want to accomplish that task, first in their own lives and then in others'.
2. The Church is a sacramental reality. Questions of church identity tend to get themselves expressed first in worship; hence, the "worship wars" which so many reform movements and church fads provoke. Church growth plans often shipwreck on the fact that the worship service is the "first impression" given to most newcomers, and no amount of programming can overcome a consistently bad worship experience (from the newcomers' perspective).
I believe that worship is not just whatever you want it to be. There is a historical continuity to be considered. That doesn't mean we have to be antiquarian in our approach. But trying to spruce up the historic worship pattern all too often means we become heavily presentational. We wind up turning the congregation into an audience, and the worship leaders into performers. This is wrong, even if it is done well.
Many people assume that the preacher, choir, organist, etc. are the performers, the congregation the audience, and God the prompter in the wings who tells the preacher and other leaders what to say or do. In fact, the proper view is that the congregation are the performers, God is the audience, and the various leaders are there to assist the congregation in their work.
As far as practical matters go, when I order the worship life of the congregation, I am striving for a dignified naturalism. I don't want to be stuffy, but I'm not doing a standup routine, either. I want people to be able to express higher sentiments and claim deeper experiences while not making them feel like a bunch of kids being herded through a set of "school exercises." We can be relaxed and we can reach for the grand gesture -- though probably not at the same moment, nevertheless, within the same liturgy.
The eucharist is the primary act of Christian worship. It is about Jesus, from Jesus, and connects us to Jesus. If we cut ourselves off from it, we impair our connection to him. Our history, of course, has led us to emphasizing preaching (and the response to it) over communion; however, even if we don't celebrate communion every Sunday, it is the normative act of worship. A community in which holy communion is considered a "special" thing, or in which its celebration or distribution is experienced as awkward is not a community which can grow properly.
Above all else in worship, we need to find an uplifting yet comfortable way to offer communion on a regular basis. Questions of architecture and hygiene may seem secondary, but they form genuine obstacles in this parish to the joyful and reverent use of the eucharist.
General Conference has begun to emphasize moving our denomination toward weekly celebration of holy communion. I am not trying to establish that now, but I am trying to prepare the congregation for it.
In addition to recovering a new-found centering upon historic worship patterns and, especially, upon the eucharist, we need to recover a proper use of the sacrament of holy baptism in our congregational life. As eucharist is at the center of all the considerations and controversies related to worship, so baptism is at the center of all the considerations and controversies related to membership.
Why don't people join our church? One reason is, they don't know how. They don't even understand what it means. So they attend without making that commitment. Those who should be inviting them to make that commitment frequently speak of it dismissively, as "just having your name on a roll." And if they don't go onward, they often fall back. Without being invited to meaningful membership, they just drop out.
Meanwhile, over half the membership of the congregation no longer attends, participates, or gives. The membership vows were to support the church by one's "prayers, presence, gifts, and service." They may, indeed, be praying, but if they aren't doing the other three any longer, then probably not. And no one takes them off the rolls, thereby further lowering the value of having one's name on said roll.
A proper approach to membership includes regular confirmation classes and adult membership classes. But this is by no means limited to what the pastor does. Every member should understand the meaning of that membership and feel empowered to invite newcomers to take that step. Which just returns us to the need to rehabilitate the meaning of membership in our own members.
At the same time, those who have not participated in a year without excuse (shut-ins, college kids and service members, etc.) should be inquired after. Those who are well and truly "gone" should be removed from membership. When the people who are actually here more closely resemble the people who officially belong here, then the group experiences a renewal of the meaning of membership. So dropping inactives is not just about good pastoral care of the inactives, but about interpreting membership to the prospects as well.
As part of explaining to one and all the meaning of membership, we have to recover the language of repentance and salvation and faith. Those have to be given content in people's minds. They can't just be "big religious words" floating around; for someone to claim the faith, one must understand what one is being asked to do – and what Christ says he will do for us when we do what he asks of us.
This doesn't mean we have to ape the evangelical lingo. It does mean, however, that theology matters. There are many ways to express our faith-relationship with Christ, but that's a far cry from saying, "whatever you believe, it means the same thing." As Paul said, if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will rush into battle? I realize that we have many different kinds of preaching and teaching coming from UM pulpits, and I can't guarantee what comes after me; nevertheless, I am bound by what I believe to be true. And I believe, as C.S. Lewis did, that we do not recommend Christianity to people because we think it's good for them. That would be arrogant do-gooderism. We recommend Christianity because we think it's TRUE. If it is true, then it is a matter of supreme importance; if it is not true, then it is a matter of no importance at all. Churches that believe in the Truth of the gospel tend to grow; churches that think the gospel untrue, or the trueness of it unimportant, tend to decline.
So: membership invitation; membership preparation; membership discipline; teaching the meaning of membership. And then comes the public expression of that membership that is shared by all. When somebody comes forward for baptism or confirmation or re-affirmation of their faith or transfer of membership, they are saying something important about their relationship with Christ – and about their relationship with us. We need to support them in both.
And here we run up against the religious culture that surrounds us. Specifically, we run up against the conflict between those raised in or influenced by churches that practice only "believer's baptism" and our own tradition of "paedo-baptism." The tendency has been for pastors to feel very pressured to keep people coming forward and smiling and let people do what they want in this regard -- to the ultimate disarray of the whole meaning of membership within our covenant community. In order to recover the meaning of membership and see it valued amongst our congregation, we are going to have to re-present and highly value our own tradition.
That doesn't mean that we insist that everyone have their babies sprinkled. It does mean that if they have their babies or young children baptized, we explain to them that that is a real baptism, and we won't do it over when they grow up. Period. You see, unlike the Believer's Baptism churches, who see that act as primarily our act – our testimony to God, we are at bottom sacramentalists: we believe that baptism – at any age – is primarily God's act, his testimony to us. And God never does it wrong, or feels the need to do it again.
In today's world, people come into our church from all kinds of religious backgrounds and no religious background at all. Some have been baptized one way, some another; some of those who have been "saved" (are believers) have been baptized, some have not. In order to affirm the experience of God working in their lives to bring them to the point of joining our church, we have to be consistent in how we interpret what we do with them.
So: there is only one set of promises from God, which we appropriate by faith at different times and in different ways. Some of us were baptized as infants and confirmed as adults. Some of us were baptized and confirmed at our profession of faith in youth or adulthood. Some of us have wandered away, but come now to re-affirm our faith. Some of us are transferring from one body to another. All of us take the same vows, celebrate the same gift of God, and receive the same promise of support from the congregation. Baptism is unrepeatable, but we affirm it anew over and over in our lives.
And we believe that baptism offered in any mode (immersion, sprinkling, pouring) is valid baptism. That means that we don't have a "preferred" mode – we don't try to herd people into choosing one form over the other. If you have never been baptized, you get your choice, and we will accommodate you. If you have been baptized into Christ, we affirm that in your experience, and will not repeat it. That would be detrimental to your laying hold of the faith and trusting God's promises.
In the end, patient and firm teaching and practice about baptism and membership will establish a pattern that people can understand and anchor their faith to.
When I was asked by the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee to sum up my personal approach to ministry at my take-in, I thought for a moment and said, "I teach the faith; I celebrate the sacraments; I take kids camping." And that is what I have actually done. The first two are my priorities as a pastor. The third is my personal ministry that I would do, even if I weren't a pastor; though being a pastor, I work it in in a special way. These are things I do – and would do – in any church, along with visiting the sick and so forth.
My Emmaus experience taught me that clergy have to do clergy stuff and laity have to do lay stuff. If I try to do all the ministry, I will merely exhaust myself and stunt the growth of the laity. In the end, everybody loses if I do that. So I tend to restrict myself to those things that are either my pastoral responsibility or part of my own personal call. That means that I initiate few all-church programs. It is not my job to keep people busy or to direct their activity. It is my primary job to do my ministry and let them do theirs. Along the way, I try to help them as I can to do theirs better, since that's part of my ministry of discipling them. But if there are capable laypersons who help them figure it out, then my job is merely to celebrate their successes with them, and get back to what I am particularly responsible for doing.
I didn't used to do it that way. But then, I am a recovering control freak. I now realize I don't have to do it all or control how it comes out. That's God's job. My job is merely to be faithful.
But since you ask where I am trying to lead the congregation, the better to work with me, I have offered you this essay as a guide. I am very concerned right now with ministry to children, youth, and young families. They are an endangered species around here, and in a congregation that must minister to every segment in order to thrive, it is more than just "my thing" to direct the congregation's attention to these people.
I am also concerned about leadership. We have a good, but aging, leadership core. We could lose several strong leaders at any time. Where are their replacements? We also have a bad habit of giving leadership to people who don't participate very much, which means that they either don't perform, or have a skewed idea of where they can lead the church. In either case, I'd rather leave a position vacant than have a warm body filling it. That way, when we find somebody who really cares about an area of ministry, we can put them right to work instead of frustrating them with a committee structure that doesn't work. And best of all, we should have more ad hoc, task oriented groups doing stuff that people care about doing, and spend less energy on meetings.
The way to be a successful small town church is to recover a sense of what the Church should be, and worry less about image and marketing. Discipling others is a relational ministry, where we invite those less experienced in Christ to come along, have fun and do good, all the time showing them what we know how to do and be. It's less about the programs which carry it than the relationships and activities that are done through those programs. For that matter, what I know from Scouting and youth work is that the real ministry happens in the cracks between the scheduled activities. It's what we say and do in between the official, programmatic stuff that cements our relationships with God and each other and helps us grow.
As we go along, making disciples, we also have to recover our focus upon worship and membership. These are sacramental realities; which means they are exemplified in eucharist and baptism, but not limited to them. To understand the sacraments is to be given a key to interpret all the rest of your life, and to see God at work in it and in the Church.