Commitment to church looks different today than it did just a few years ago.
Not long ago, church members mostly agreed that a committed United Methodist worshiped with their congregation each week. She participated in regular Bible studies or a small group. She served the church by volunteering in church operations or missions.
In the 2020s, however, our perception of church commitment changed.
Today, people attend worship gatherings far less frequently than in decades past. Average weekly worship attendance at US churches has been in decline since 2009.
Technology has fragmented how we access information and spend our time, impacting involvement in other standard church activities. Some might choose to participate in a Bible study that meets online and asynchronously. Others might choose to serve their neighbors through community organizations discovered through social media.
It seems people are finding new ways of committing their lives to Christ and the Church.
A wider definition of membership
Anglican bishop David Walker identified four modes of church belonging: activities, events, relationships and place. Traditionally, our assumptions about church commitment were generally about regular participation in the activities of the congregation—including worship and Bible studies.
Correspondingly, events-based commitment poses challenges as well. Many individuals are skeptical or fearful of participating in our community events like rummage sales, mission trips, and special musical presentations.
The two remaining modes of belonging, relationships and place, remain as ways to express our own commitment and encourage commitment in others.
Relational belonging is expressed in having a sense of intimacy with those who identify as part of a congregation. The idea is that if you know us, you are with us.
Place belonging entails an awareness that particular places--real and virtual--inspire spiritual connections. Traditionally, the church sanctuary was the primary place people felt spiritual connection. Today, a Facebook group page or a virtual reality re-creation of the empty tomb might be an inspirational place to be as well.
Recognizing that some members define their commitment through these other modes of belonging is valuable because it broadens our sense of connection. It also provides us inspiration to continue to invite people into making a commitment to the mission of the church.
A return to our roots
The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But how can we continue that work today?
The founders of the Methodist movement asked very similar questions. At a time when many people participated in the activities of the church—though it was in decline in their day as well—John and Charles Wesley and their friends at Oxford University dared to ask "why has Christianity done so little good, even among us?" (John Wesley, “Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity” 13).
They began their student-run club, often referred to as the Holy Club, in 1729 with a focus on practices of activity: attending the sacrament and keeping spiritual diaries. But members shortly identified that the mission of taking faith more seriously involved more encompassing practices. So they added practices like visiting prisoners, educating the under-privileged and helping the poor (practices involving relationships and events).
Their marks of commitment continued to morph. An unofficial list eventually included:
- Live Christ-like
- Small group participation
- Rhythm of public worship
- Private prayer
- Serve the most needy
This list apparently includes all our modes of membership: activities, events, relationships and place.
Following their lead, many United Methodist congregations are finding new “places” to gather for relational community. Because social media platforms like Facebook are among these new place, committed church members of the 2020s actively engage in their church’s online community. This includes asking questions, sharing bits of their own spiritual journeys, and even participating in discussions about current events. I also involves sharing content from a church’s social media page so that others may see how God is working through the life of the local church.
One advantage of utilizing social media as a “place” of the church is social media is not bound by time constraints. It is always open. So when individual members have the time and energy to engage in relationship building with others, the opportunity is there for them to do so.
Members may also utilize place-based practices in creative ways at their church facilities. This might be the perfect time to start and stock a blessing box ministry on the church property. Or utilizing church space to aid in a community need that has been impacted by the pandemic. Members of one United Methodist church supported recycling efforts impacted in their community. This also creatively serves the needs of the community.
Commitment to love
The simplest vision might be the easiest one to follow. So perhaps we just need to focus on the words of John Wesley: “Very excellent things are spoken of love; it is the essence, the spirit, the life of all virtue. It is not only the first and greatest command, but it is all the commandments in one” (Circumcision of the Heart, 11). Love is the key virtue fueling our commitment to God’s mission in the world.
Ryan Dunn is a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications and host of the Pastoring in the Digital Parish podcast.
This story was published February 3, 2022.