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The blessings of presence: Honoring our United Methodist vow

Young people worship at First United Methodist Church in Baguio City, Philippines. The church has a worship service on Sunday afternoons that caters to the young and young at heart, said Dr. Neil Peralta, chairperson for the worship committee. Photo courtesy Baguio City First United Methodist Church Communications Committee.
Young people worship at First United Methodist Church in Baguio City, Philippines. The church has a worship service on Sunday afternoons that caters to the young and young at heart, said Dr. Neil Peralta, chairperson for the worship committee. Photo courtesy Baguio City First United Methodist Church Communications Committee.

As part of The United Methodist Church's Baptismal Covenant, new members promise to faithfully participate in a local congregation through their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. But, how can they go beyond the words they profess to actually living into these vows? In a special five-part series, we look at each aspect of this membership vow, and how United Methodists can answer the call to serve Christ through the local church.

The Rev. Roy Hilburn knows the importance of being present in the local church and the community. When he became senior pastor at Coharie United Methodist Church in Clinton, North Carolina, there were eight members, the youngest of whom was 55.

Now, almost a decade later, membership at the primarily Native American church has more than quadrupled. It's often standing-room only on special occasions.

Early on, Hilburn encouraged his congregation to actively seek the lost in their midst. Doing so energized members and attracted new ones, including young families. Those fresh faces added fuel to the fire and the church extended its reach.

"We're always looking to help those who are hurting," he said. "That really helps us focus in on community. That makes us look around and see who is in need around us."

When United Methodists stand in the company of those in need, they are living into their membership vows, specifically the promise to participate in a local congregation through their presence. The pledge also includes prayers, gifts, service and witness.

"We usually think of presence as showing up on Sunday morning," said the Rev. Mark W. Stamm, author of "Our Membership Vows," a Discipleship Ministries resource. "I'm all for showing up on Sunday morning, (but) being present with and for God also may mean being present with and for God in other places, with those who are ill or who need advocacy or who simply are lonely and need someone to stand with them."

He said that often means being present with those who are absent from church, and that's not just the pastor's duty. "That's really the whole church's work — to be sister and brother with all those with whom we've been united by baptism. If they can't get to us, it's our job to go to them, and not just electronically. What we can do by internet, email and phone is wonderful, but there's no substitute for showing up. So much of discipleship is showing up," Stamm said.

Hilburn shared the story of a family his congregation helped recently. A young mother was carrying her paraplegic son, who was 8 or 9 years old, up and down the dilapidated stairs of their mobile home every time she left the house. She then had to go back and retrieve his wheelchair.

She often did this three or four times a day.

"It was really breaking her down," Hilburn said. "Those steps were not safe to walk on for a normal person, much less a mom toting a son."

The congregation quickly took action. They teamed with another United Methodist church in the area and the Lowe's Heroes program to build the family a wheelchair ramp.

"The mother was very grateful for what we had done. It has definitely changed their lives for the better. … (The young boy's) smiles said it all," Hilburn said.

Elsa Aurora Escrivao Zunguze, a member of Malhangalene United Methodist Church in Maputo, Mozambique, said she feels privileged that United Methodists are given room to act. She helps with a ministry called Solidarity Soup that feeds the hungry each week.

"As we serve (soup) to the needy, I feel that the church becomes more involved with the reality that surrounds it; on the other hand, the community begins to understand one of the reasons why the church is there," she said.

Dr. Neil Peralta, chairperson for the worship and scholarship committees at First United Methodist Church in Baguio City, Philippines, said he prefers a holistic meaning of the word "presence," one that "encompasses each person's physical involvement and spiritual formation."

His church is active on both fronts through campus ministries, support for families who have children fighting cancer, and spiritual outreach with inmates, indigenous women and children, the homeless and others. The church also hosts various fellowship groups within the church.

"New members are encouraged to be part of a covenant discipleship group where they grow in their relationship with God and with fellow members and the church as a whole. … Our young couples minister to one another as they face challenges in their life as new couples strengthening their marriages and building families," Peralta said.

The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, former director of worship resources for Discipleship Ministries, said the pledge to be present also pushes members to ask the question, "Who isn't here? Who aren't we including that we need to be including?" he said. "If the church includes people of all ages, nations and races, and our church looks like it's just one group, what's going on?"

That was an important aspect for Hilburn as he looked to grow membership. He told his small congregation to imagine the church being in the middle of a circle with a five-mile radius.

"Within that circle, you're going to find white people, black people, Native American people, Hispanic people and a mix of all of the above. If those faces are not represented in this church, regardless of the size, we are a dying congregation. We need to have all of those folks sitting in this sanctuary worshipping the Lord with us," he said.

Burton-Edwards said that message goes beyond what the congregation looks like on Sunday morning to include your individual social network. That doesn't mean what your Facebook page looks like, he said, but rather the people in your presence on a regular basis.

"If you're actually going to be fully participating in the ministries of the church, that means your social network better look like that, too. And if it doesn't, take some steps to fix that."

This feature was first published on December 19, 2017.

Julie Dwyer is a writer and editor for United Methodist Communications. Reach her at [email protected].

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