Faith and Fallacies

My Staff Parish Relations Committee and I worked on our evaluation form last night. We dutifully and fruitfully prayed about and discussed the sense of living into Jesus the vine, and then engaged the questions on the sheet. The first one gave us trouble. We felt like the wires were a little crossed.

… Not because our answer is zero, although that also gave us some pause. See if you can guess where we took issue.

Has anyone joined your church by “profession of faith” in the last twelve months?

  • YES (how many?)  What are you doing to make disciples?
  • NO (why not?) What could you do to make disciples?

So, let me see if I get this: If people have added their name to a church membership roster, who have never been part of  church membership roster before, that is making disciples. I find this confusing, since Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with any such rosters when he issued them the Great Commission. And if no one has been added to the roll in this way, clearly that congregation is not doing *anything* to make disciples.

Yes, in part, this is just a poorly-worded question. I don’t want to parse words.

I want to strike at the deeper logical fallacy I see here.

I find it a false assumption in two directions to assume that a “disciple” and a person who has recently joined a church by profession of faith are the same thing. And, because I’ve been appointed in a place where we have some shared understandings of discipleship, or because we’ve been having conversations about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus for four years now, the members of my SPRC do too.

On the one hand, that’s an arbitrary bar to set. Plenty of people grow in and deepen their relationship with God and with others, becoming formed and re-formed as disciples, but do not join a United Methodist Church. Are they less worthy of being termed disciples? Never.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people on membership rolls of various churches who may at one time have met the qualification of having joined by profession of faith, but are not growing or deepening their spiritual lives, and are seeking or in need of being formed and re-formed as disciples. Do we neglect this need for spiritual care and formation because the fruits of this effort will never appear on an evaluation form? Heaven forbid!

It was a member of the team who reminded us that we sow seeds and may never see them take root. It was a congregant who wondered aloud about a person they knew who, having been touched by our church’s ministry, decided to attend a different church, asking, “Does ‘make disciples’ mean make more members of the Methodist Church?” It was a layperson who told the powerful story about our community meal, and how we’ve begun offering a blessing before the meal is served for those who want to participate (many come in closer to the table to share the blessing, while those who don’t wish to participate remain in conversation around the room), and how a couple of weeks ago, when the servers began to serve before the blessing, one guest said, “Wait. Aren’t we gonna pray first?” “Isn’t that man a new disciple?” the team member asked. These are the people of the church, owning and naming their own ministry, recognizing the transformation Christ is bringing in our midst. So I also want to say– are not they new and renewed disciples?

I assure you, our team did not remain in the place of objecting to the framing of the question to the point of missing the deeper exercise. Looking for the question behind the words, we talked about whether we had any new members (yes) and from where they are coming (mostly transfers from other United Methodist Churches). We talked about places for potential new “professions of faith,” including our current confirmation class– an opportunity to receive members who have thought and prayed and reflected and asked questions for over a year by the time they are done, so that is very exciting. We talked about the opportunity to reach out to people who are not affiliated with any church (those potential “professions of faith” such as the ones we had named) and discussed how, if we truly believe that there are some who are on the journey of discipleship, we might invite them to find a spiritual home on that journey at Trinity UMC– not because this will give us something to report on the professions of faith line, but because we believe we have something to offer as a community of faith.

Any question can point to fruitful conversation, I believe, if we can pick at it and pry it apart and uncover the spirit underneath it (or despite it!). This was a tough place to begin, because the fallacy runs deep– in our fear as a denomination, we have long prized the measurable membership numbers over the insubstantial feelings of transformation and growth– but in the end, this small group of people engaged the faith and calling behind the words.

I’m pretty sure that makes us a vital church.

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6 Responses

  1. Becca and the Trinity SPRC,
    I agree that the question is poorly worded but I am delighted at the conversation it garnered. If the question asked about professions of faith and thw follow up also asked about what you were doing to foster new professions of faith would the conversation have been as fruitful? Thanks for sharing this.
    Brigid

    • Thanks, Brigid. You are probably right that the conversation would not have taken the direction it did if it asked about only professions of faith. That said, I don’t think it would/will take that direction for every group that reads it. What we got at was a conversation about discipleship, what a disciple is, and how that may or may not relate to professions of faith, membership, and even attendance. Those are great conversations, and I suggest that questions tailored specifically to that would be even more helpful in a wider scope, and diminish the impression that the “conference” or the “denomination” only care about numbers. Maybe we could ask:
      Do you believe your church is “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”? How? Why/Why not? What can you do to improve on this?
      How do you measure this/how do you know your church is making disciples? Can you give a story/example?
      Has your church experienced new members (professions of faith), increased attendance, and/or increased participation in small groups in the past year? If yes, what do you think is working? If no, what can be done to encourage this? How is this related to the making of disciples?
      If you answered yes to making disciples and no to increased membership/attendance (this is where we are at here at Trinity, and where I think the conversation gets really interesting), where is the disconnect, how might it be bridged, and why is that important?

      Thanks for reading and commenting! And for putting up with pesky pastors and SPRCs under your charge who challenge questions!

      Becca

      • Becca thanks for the great post. I was recently pondering the Biblical use of numbers in reguards to the life of the faith community. The numbers seem to always have a narrative. Or maybe it is that the narrative has numbers. Thanks for sharing a deeper question about the questions we wrestle with.

  2. […] on how the United Methodist Church in her area was evaluating ministry at the local church level. I encourage you to read her response to the question below… Has anyone joined your church by “profession of faith” in the last twelve […]

  3. I probably don’t mind that any form measuring the effectiveness of a minister includes the number of individuals who have joined the church and the number of individuals in some sort of preparatory role.

    But since we also, in our numerous statistical categories, also report the number of people who have died, also report how many are in heaven and how many are not? And before anyone flames me, I am being sarcastic. But we put an emphasis on numbers that really does a poor justice in measuring how effective we are.

    How can we measure the change in one’s life because they received a small glass of lemonade and some cookies at the end of an evening vespers service? How can we measure what might happen just because we happened to be there to give a hungry mother some food for her children?

    It isn’t so much the numbers but the actions that have taken place.

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