I think Munger Place Church, a congregation of Highland Park UMC, is doing some great things. I want to share a few things I have experienced at Munger that I think could be instructive for the broader United Methodist Church.
A few weeks ago I attended the membership class for Munger with my wife. The class was two hours on a Wednesday night, and there were more than fifty people there – and this was the third membership class! Part of Andrew’s vision for Munger is that he wants it to be a place where everyone is welcomed with open arms on the one hand, but where there are meaningful standards for membership on the other hand.
Incidentally, I am in complete agreement with Andrew here. I think the best way to measure whether a church has meaningful membership standards is whether the average attendance is higher than the membership of the church. My guess is that most United Methodist congregations have a membership that is two times larger than the average weekly worship attendance of the church. When this is the case it reveals that the members of the church do not think something as basic as showing up at church is essential to being a member of the church. As Andrew said in the membership class, this is a model that a health club would love. You could buy one treadmill and have 10 million members!
Currently, Munger Place has four expectations of each person who takes the extra step of becoming a member of the church. 1) Attendance at weekly worship service; 2) Support the church financially with consistent giving; 3) Participate in a weekly small group, which Munger calls Kitchen Groups; 4) Serve others, particularly the last, the least, and the lost.
I appreciated the way Andrew communicated these four expectations in a way that showed that they really were expected of members, but avoided coming across as legalistic of Pharisaic. Andrew also stated explicitly that if people were unsure of whether they were ready to make these commitments, they were welcomed – and encouraged! – to continue to be active in the church without taking the step of becoming a member.
Just exactly how members will be held accountable for keeping these expectations remains to be seen. But Andrew has already raised the standards for the typical United Methodist Church by having a mandatory membership class. And if this Sunday is an indication, I am told that there were about one hundred people who joined the church the first time they were given the opportunity. (I was disappointed to miss worship, as I was in Atlanta for an academic conference.)
I have spoken with a few people who joined the church and have been thrilled to hear how meaningful it was to them. One person talked about how big of a step this was in their life. Another person said that it was so meaningful they had tears of joy as they made their commitment to ministry through and with the church. One person emailed me to celebrate becoming a part of Munger and joining the UMC for the first time. The email concluded, “Go Wesley!”
One of the things that excites me the most about Munger is that I have met several people who are captivated by the Wesleyan vision for the Christian life. These women and men do not have the anxiety about the future of our denomination that many lifelong Methodists have. In fact, they hardly seem to notice the decline, because they are too captivated by the God who is changing their lives.
And if this weren’t enough… this is all happening in a church that was closed because it was no longer financially viable. New life. Resurrection. Thanks be to God!
Tony Mitchell said:
This is interesting and not the first time I have heard of a United Methodist Church that puts conditions/expectations on membership in the church.
And while I perhaps understand the reasoning and rationale for such a expectations/conditions, they make it the kind of church that I might visit but definitely would not join.
When I join a church (actually transfer my membership) I reaffirm my vow to support the church with my prayers, my presence, my gifts and my prayers. I have made that committment to God before God and the people; I need not do it again
And I back it up with my thoughts, words, and deeds.
And what happens, if for some reason, one fails to meet the expectations? Do they have to start over?
The problem, of course, is the number of individuals who give lip service to the notion that membership is a Sunday only thing. The challenge is to get those who see church only on Sunday to change their minds and to live the Gospel.
There is something such a process that bothers me – I trust my committment to God, Christ, and the United Methodist Church is total and complete – I don’t feel as if I have to justify that to someone here on earth.
Kevin Watson said:
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experience. You are helping me think through questions about membership more carefully.
I would argue that churches that have meaningful expectations of their members are actually being very Wesleyan as John Wesley had clear expectations for membership in the early Methodist societies and these expectations were largely adopted by American Methodism when it became a church in its own rite in 1784.
I think I hear you saying that you feel like your sincerity and integrity would be questioned by having to make new commitments. What I am not sure I understand is whether you are willing to specifically publicly commit to support a local congregation of the UMC with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service as part of transferring your membership. (I think you are saying that you would, but that you should be sufficient.)
If you are willing to make these commitments, I am not sure I understand your objection to what I have outlined. The only way that Munger’s membership expectations are really different than the ones in the UMC liturgy are the expectation of weekly participation in a Kitchen Group (which tries to be like a class meeting). Is that the point where you think more is being as than reasonably should?
I do not question that you are in fact keeping the vows you have made to the UMC. However, I think that attendance figures compared to membership numbers and the percentage of members who are committed givers are two indications that people like you are not necessarily the norm.
One way of rephrasing the conversation might be, how should the church hold its members accountable for keeping the vows that every United Methodist already has to make to join the church. I see Munger Place as one such approach, where the goal is to convey that these things really are expected of members. But as I said in the post, we realize it may not be for everyone and the church welcomes active participation from people who are not ready to make these commitments. (I have also heard leaders say that they will help someone find a church that might fit them better if there is something about Munger that they cannot say “Amen” to.)
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
David Player said:
Tony Mitchell said:
Thanks for your thoughts on my comment. I think that my objection arises from experiences that are more legalistic than faith or spiritual.
It was like the time that I had to attend a new members class and was expected to learn about Methodism. At that time, I was serving as a lay pastor at another church and doing the exact same thing that I was being expected to do in this new members class. In the end, I gave the lesson on the nature of why it was called the United Methodist Church.
My committment to my vows is public though I do not share my financial status (I have mixed feelings about whether or not one’s financial giving should be part of the “public” record or not – again, I have had the benefit of seeing historical records at several of the churches I have belonged to and served and know the historical giving of families who are part of the church.) Then, in today’s current economy, this can be a very touching situation with many people.
My situation, admittedly, is slightly different from many others. Most people at my church know that if I am not at church on a given Sunday then I am somewhere in the district or conference providing pulpit supply. This has been the situation for the past few years – if I were to transfer to another church in the coming years and they would not support my established lay ministry, then it would be very difficult for me to be a part of that particular church.
I think the key is to challenge members (new and old alike) to live a life that expresses one’s faith. The second key is that this challenge must be made from the leadership of the church and not necessarily the pastor.
Like I said originally, I don’t like the idea of a requirement when it comes to membership. On the other hand, if I were to come to a new church, without any knowledge of Methodism or Christianity, and then not be challenged to find out what it was and what I could do, I may not come back.
I was challenged to begin this walk many, many years ago. I have try to meet that challenge and hope that I can challenge others to begin the walk themselves. That is more along the lines of what Wesley expected (I think)
I was at Trinity United Methodist Parish in Newburgh, NY this morning and Drew UMC in Carmel, NY, last night.
The message is at http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/who-will-do-the-work/; the reason I wanted to mention that in service there was a slight change in the manner in which they did things. Primarily, the offering was after the message. I pointed out during the message that the challenge for each of them was to find a way to do the work of the Lord.
I did not write the sermon with our previous discussion but what we said helped shaped the thoughts.
In peace and with Christ,
John Meunier said:
I’m curious if a couple months later whether you have any sense about how the accountability piece of the membership expectations is being handled.