Is church high on your list?
"When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him." (Luke 5:11)
By BISHOP ROBERT HAYES JR.
In a recent meeting of Conference leaders, I was troubled to learn that still only one-third of our churches are growing in members. That means two-thirds are either stagnant or declining. These are statistics that keep your bishop pacing the floor at night, asking myself: What are we doing wrong?
Much conversation these days grieves the falling membership of major denominations, including our United Methodist Church. Since the mid-1960s the number of people who worship in our churches has been steadily decreasing, with a sharp drop in the number of people who actually join. I’ll be first to admit there is no one solution for this dilemma.
But I do believe there are a few answers within our reach that we can employ if we are going to change the trajectory of our course.
Today I offer these ideas, in combination with my last article, as conversation-starters for your church.
I begin with this basic premise:
To make a disciple, you must be a disciple!
All too often we want to place the weight of disciple-making on the pastor or someone who has the unenviable title of "chair of evangelism." Truthfully, all of us are in the disciple-making business.
The question becomes: Are we really disciples ourselves?
The vast majority of worshippers feel that attending church on Sunday morning meets the requirements for a devoted follower of Christ. Furthermore, many believe that being present at church once or maybe twice a month fulfills all obligations of being "a member in good standing."
It requires more than that!
I want to call attention to this. Within every congregation there are a faithful few disciples who on every Sunday open the church, turn on the lights and adjust the temperature control, make the coffee and juice, and teach Sunday School. They also are present at Bible studies, choir rehearsals, workdays, and in a host of other ways throughout the week. And if there is a special need, you can always call on them.
What separates them from so many others? The answer is straightforward:
They have consciously made the church a priority in their lives, and everything else is secondary.
Now, you may argue that you just don’t have that kind of time to devote to the church, and that may be true. But you should be fully aware that you become a disciple of whatever demands the most of your time and energy! Devotion to your family—I encourage that. But remember that you are part of Christ’s family, too; the church is his Bride.
Shouldn’t your devotion to Christ and his church rank somewhere near the top of your list?
When members (disciples) are received into the church, they are asked this question: "Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?"
Those words represent a vow—a covenant, a promise, a commitment. If we don’t honor that pledge we make, if we don’t live out those words, are we truly disciples?
In the pledge, there are no loopholes that give us permission to place the church last in our priorities.
Disciples are eager to grow in faith, willing to give themselves unashamedly to the cause of Christ and the work of the church. Discipleship is a way of life, not a practice we pick up and put down on Sunday mornings. It involves the whole person, focused and devoted to transforming self, family, community and, yes, a hurting and needy world!
In this touching verse found in Luke’s Gospel, it is clear what was important to those first disciples. "When they had brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him."
We live in a time when very few are willing to leave the comfort of their boats—the boats of convenience, ease, and misguided loyalties. They make mountains of excuses.
I appeal to you today to look very closely at how you live out your discipleship. How much are you willing to leave behind to follow Christ? Everything—or just a little?
Go and ask those faithful few who keep the church alive what reward they get for their loyalty. It’s likely they won’t be able to put that into words, so look to the evidence of their lives. The reward is priceless! You see, they left their boats a long time ago!