Photo Courtesy of Ben Gosden
What am I?
“As you join 1st Downtown UMC, we have to ask you this question: Will you support this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”
Maybe you’ve heard or even said something along those lines at the end of a worship service when someone (or even a few someones) take the long walk down the aisle at the end of worship during the final verse of a hymn. As the hymn ends you may have heard your pastor (or maybe you are the pastor) announce to the congregation the addition of a new member to the congregation. These vows are merely the formality of what promises to be a life-long loyalty to the church.
But what does that even mean?…
We’re in the midst of a 50+ year decline in membership in The United Methodist Church. There’s a growing market for curriculum designed to educate new and prospective members. I’ve recently conducted a very unscientific poll through social media and word of mouth. Among those who responded to me, the majority of churches who use a teaching model for new members generally set it up with a trajectory towards the membership vows — prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. I wonder if we’re in the business of making disciples, then should we root discipleship in the membership vows of the local church?
What if Discipleship Requires More?
One of the frustrations with imagining a church that makes disciples might be found in the fact that we set people up to be members and not disciples. The truth is our membership vows are essentially individualistic in nature. Membership vows convey the importance to support the local church through showing up, helping others, and even inviting others to join you in doing these things. But is this what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ journeying together towards salvation?
For John Wesley, the journey of faith was one that required sojourners to move towards entire sanctification — being perfected in love through grace. Wesley believed faith was a means to radically transform your life physically, spiritually, emotionally, and even economically.
Hear from Mr. Wesley himself:
“It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go on unto perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in every thing giving thanks.”
–from Sermon #43 “The Scripture Way of Salvation”
“Well, but what more than this can be implied in entire sanctification?” It does not imply any new kind of holiness: Let no man imagine this. From the moment we are justified, till we give up our spirits to God, love is the fulfilling of the law; of the whole evangelical law… Love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness, which is found, only in various degrees”
–from Sermon #83 “On Patience”
“Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God.”
–from A Letter to Walter Churchey (June 26, 1788)
Therefore while it’s important we uphold our local churches as places where life-changing ministry can happen, we should root a ministry of disciple-formation in something deeper than our membership vows. If discipleship is to mean anything significant in The United Methodist Church, we need to encourage something more that just being loyal and paying dues to a local church.
Using Our Baptismal Vows as a Basis for Discipleship
When was the last time you’ve heard about your baptismal vows outside of the context of witnessing a baptism? Let’s review them:
1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
When our membership vows become the basis for discipleship, then the requirements of discipleship get scaled down to fit the local church. Ministry becomes defined solely as what happens within the local church instead of a lifestyle we embody for having been a part of the church. Service eventually becomes synonymous with volunteering instead of self-giving. Giving becomes a local dues paying system instead of a tangible sign of a spiritual sacrifice.
Our baptismal vows up the ante on what it means to be Christian. It moves our faith from the local church and into a whole-life approach to faith. After all, this is what a sending forth means at the end of Sunday worship.
Renouncing spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting evil, and repenting of sin requires the local body but it means more than merely participating in local ministry. Accepting the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression requires the presence of a local body but it means our perspective on faith is anything but local. And confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in union with the Church Christ has opened to all nations, races, and ages reminds us that while we’re apart of a particular local body, we are also strengthened as part of the Church in all times and places. The cosmic significance of this cannot be understated.
What Can We Do Now?
If our baptismal vows are to become a part of the collective vernacular of our local churches we need to do a few things:
- Teach them. Lead a small group centered around the baptismal covenant. Follow the flow of the order to structure the flow of the class. Begin with a discussion on the nature of salvation. Move to the vows themselves. And then talk about what it means to be in ministry in the local church in light of these demanding vows.
- Preach on them. If you’re preaching on discipleship, then make sure you include these vows as a primary basis for your preaching. The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to discipleship. Use the vows at your disposal and even invite worshippers to turn to the page in the hymnal where they can find them or project them on a screen for all to read and follow along. The vows will preach, I promise.
- Organize discipling groups that use these vows on a regular basis. Have groups write covenants together using these baptismal vows as a base for how they order their lives together. Discipling one another means watching over each other in mutual love and accountability. If discipleship is to become a part of the local DNA of our congregations, then we need to provide structural means whereby persons can disciple one another.