I’ve been thinking this evening—in amongst watching the Celtics torch the Pacers in Game One of the 2005 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and reading Chuck Klosterman’s treatise on 21st Century Rock albums in the May 2005 Esquire—about what it means to be a member of a United Methodist congregation.
When one moves from one congregation to another, as I am about to do, one transfers one’s letter of membership from the old church to the new one. [If you’re curious about the process, UMC.org has a FAQ on baptism, confirmation, and membership.] One also makes a profession of faith in front of the congregation; most memorable for your average United Methodist is the phrase “prayer, presence, gifts, and service” in congregational life. It’s easy to dismiss it as your standard John Wesley quadrilateral, but I do think that the phrase is used for quite good reasons.
Prayer: Communication is important in any relationship, and if we’re to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, prayer has to be a part of it. Now, praying doesn’t make you any less of a sinner, but it can truly ground you if you make it an integral part of your lifestyle. [I’ll get back to you when I can say that it is consistent and integral in mine. I often fool myself into thinking that my inner dialogue of things I’d say to God is enough, and honestly, it’s not.]
Presence: Much like Chauncey Gardner, we need to be there. [Guilt meter factor: 8.5.] But unlike Chauncey, we’re not there for thoughtless recitation of what we have heard and seen; we are to take and eat and drink, to internalize, to listen and to learn and be taught. You can’t do any of that, though, if you’re worshipping at Mattress Springs UMC.
Gifts: Most Christians are familiar with the concepts of spiritual gifts, and your profession of faith is supposed to pledge you and remind you that you are to give these gifts to your local congreagation so that you may serve it in order to serve God’s greater Church and to give God the glory that He so richly deserves.
Service: It’s easy to say, “Why isn’t this lumped up with gifts?” But honestly, you can serve a congregation without having it be something that’s truly your gift. For example, none of us really think of carpentry, plumbing, or solid janitorial skills as spiritual gifts—if they are, maybe we need to talk to Paul about that sometime!—but they are ways in which we can serve our church. Stewardship through tithes and offerings is also a way in which we can serve our local congregation.
As I’m between congregations at the moment, I’m hoping to keep myself more keenly focused on a balance of these four prongs of my congregational life. I have all too often leaned on the latter two prongs and hoped that this would make up for my shortcomings in the other two areas. This is laughably and demonstrably wrong of me, and I’m trying to make a clear-headed approach to my next congregation, wherever it may lie.