A couple of months ago, your Pastoral Team made a conscious decision to “interact” with the people of the Open Door Churches on a more consistent basis each week. Like you, we have been frustrated by what the pandemic has done to our ability to create and maintain relationships with you, especially as we have moved into a new phase in the development of the Open Door Churches concept in which we are sharing clergy. So, we decided to offer a series of Midweek Devotionals, as well as a Pastors’ Blog with posts on various topics of interest to everyone.
Over the next five weeks, I will be using our collective blog space to share thoughts about the five Vows of Membership in the United Methodist Church. It’s my hope to complement what we offer in our Midweek Devotionals and weekly Worship with some more targeted reflections on each of the weekly themes. This week, you’ll be hearing reflections about prayer in our Midweek Devotional from Bob and Hazel Terhuene, who spent the better part of their ministry as United Methodist Missionaries in Japan. And I will also offer some thoughts about how the practice of prayer guides us in developing and cultivating the resource God has entrusted to us in our Spiritual Lives.
Often, we think that membership is about privilege—what it offers us—but in the Methodist tradition, membership is about responsibility and commitment—what we can offer to God. When I talk to prospective members about the possibility of joining the church, I talk to them about these Vows and the expectations that membership brings. I almost always tell them, “Membership isn’t the entry point for becoming part of the church, it’s the final step of formalizing the covenant you’re making.” In other words, by the time someone joins the church, they should already be practicing the spiritual disciplines that are the basis for each of these five vows.
Membership in the United Methodist Church may be distinct from almost any other branch of Christianity. Because the Methodist societies in Great Britain in the 18th Century were intended to be a renewal movement within the church, rather than a new church, a vital and active practice of the faith was the defining mark of a Methodist. That tradition still carries forth to this day—at least theoretically—in the fact that our vows of membership do not include a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Instead, those who join the United Methodist Church are asked if they will make a covenant to actively practice their faith by full participation in the life of the church. The primary question is, “Do you have faith in Christ?” and the secondary question is, “Will you practice your faith as a United Methodist?”
What this means is that the essential mark of a United Methodist Christian is consistent, vital practice of the faith through participation in the life of the church. In order to help prospective (and current) members understand more fully the commitment they are making by joining the church, here are some thoughts about each of the five vows of membership in the UMC: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Witness.
Vow 1: Prayers
Almost anyone who is familiar with Christianity would probably understand that prayer is essential to vital and active faith. Prayer plays a central part of the life not only of the Christian, but of the church. UM Christians promise to maintain a life of prayer in simultaneous multiple dimensions.
- Daily Prayer and Devotional Time: Regardless of whether it is morning, noon, or evening, members of the UMC are expected to seek to maintain a regular devotional time of prayer. You can use a devotional guide, an active prayer list provided by one of our ODC congregations, or your own ritual—the important thing is not how, or even how much time, but a regular practice. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in 18th Century England, faithfully kept a Journal and encouraged the practice of Christian Meditation. Prayer is every bit as much about listening for the guidance of God as it is about speaking our hearts to God.
- Spiritual Growth: In a more general sense, members of the church seek to cultivate their spiritual lives and deepen their prayer life through regular study and covenant discipleship with other Christians. This can be a commitment to a Bible study group, a Sunday school class, a covenant group, or some other small group that enables one to share thoughts, prayers, and accountability to spiritual disciplines. It’s important for us to remember that there’s a distinct difference between having a group we meet for friendship and a group we meet with for the purpose of spiritual growth. Both are important, but an active disciple seeks a place that is devoted specifically to cultivating spiritual development. Again, it’s not so much about a particular form for such a practice, it’s about being consistent in the practice.
- A Life of Prayer: In the most broad sense, the vow we take to Pray is an acceptance of the Apostle Paul’s commendation to the church to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). For those in the Wesleyan tradition, this call means a complementary vision of prayer—not only is prayer thought and action dedicated to God, but our thoughts and actions become our prayers dedicated to God.
NEXT WEEK: “Presence”
Grace and peace,
Pastor John Fleming