By Phil Maynard

April 14, 2016

Recently, an Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church with which I have worked sent out a memorandum that clarified how local churches should count “community service hours” self-reported by worship attendees (they use the popular nomenclature, “salty service”).  This data collection is part of an ongoing data-driven analysis of church health at the local and regional level and had previously measured service by encouraging congregation members to report any active volunteer service anywhere in the community—tutoring at-risk students, serving with Habitat, Hospice, Scouts, or local service organizations, as well as ministries run directly by their local churches.  Earlier this year, however, the conference clarified that, for the purposes of this particular statistical analysis, local congregations should only report volunteer hours serving directly in church-sponsored outreach, projects, and events.  That is, if the local church does not sponsor, coordinate, or oversee the community engagement, it literally doesn’t count!

The most surprising thing in the above paragraph for some readers may be that a conference is actually making an effort to measure service at all!  (Hooray that they are being thoughtful about measuring church health.)  But this particular methodology change begs an important question when taking a closer look at the how service is valued.  Don’t we tend to get what we measure?  They used to count all service offered anywhere in the name of Christ.  Now they are counting only the service managed by their own organizational structure.

This, of course, begs the question:  To what purpose do we do the things we do?

Is the health of the church of paramount importance, or should we be more concerned about the The-Church-Graphic-300x260health of disciples (as evidenced by their vibrant and creative love of the greater community)?  Or more pointedly, doesn’t the healthy engagement of disciples with the world beyond the walls of the church building more accurately reflect the present and future health of “the church” (as opposed to the number of participants involved in activities hosted and sponsored directly by any individual congregation)?

Paragraph 202 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline—the governing and vision-casting document of the United Methodist Church–reads:

The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world . . .the function . . . is to help people to accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to live their daily lives in light of their relationship with God.

Two things to note here as the outcomes to which we are striving on behalf of those we serve in love:

  • Accept and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.
  • Help people live their daily lives in light of their relationship with God.

I want to suggest that everything we do “in church” should be helping people live their daily lives in light of their relationship with God. 

In the scenario described at the beginning of this blog, an argument can be made that it appears that the purpose of service, according to the directive, is to get people active in the sponsored ministries of the church.

This is not a bad goal –  just short-sighted.  It’s narrow in scope—what if a person’s gift doesn’t align with an offered service opportunity; what if their passion is something another ministry in the community is coordinating; what if their schedule just doesn’t align with the local congregation’s options?  Are they any less engaged?  Is their service in the name of Jesus any less valuable?

Ultimately, it’s not about the church as an institution.  It’s about growing mature disciples.  The purpose of getting people involved in the service ministries of the local congregation is to serve as a springboard to getting them involved in serving people in love in their neighborhoods and greater communities as part of their natural lifestyle of discipleship.  It’s about helping people live their daily lives as disciples.

This seems to be a good defining question to ask of everything we do in church, certainly all the categories of church life for which we collect data (people in worship, money in the offering plate, participants in Bible Study, “likes” on our Facebook page?).  To what end do we measure what we measure?  To what purpose do we do these things we do?

Lovett Weems and Tom Berlin in Bearing Fruit use the question “so that” what?  We are doing this “so that” what will be the outcome?  (Their book is a really good read, by the way!)

For example:

  • Why do we preach? Is it to help people take their next steps as a disciple or create a masterpiece of exegetical analysis?
  • Why do we have a greeting time in worship? Do we greet one another in worship to model hospitality the rest of the week or just to give time for friends to say ‘Hi’?
  • Why do we have Bible studies? Do we offer Bible studies to teach people how to study and apply the teaching of scripture to daily life or just to keep the small group numbers up?
  • Why do we have hospitality centers? Do we want to help people engage others in conversation and build relationships, or simply market the activities of our congregation?
  • Why do we do service projects? Do we want to help people discover their gifts and calling to a life of service as a disciple, or to count levels of participation in the activities sponsored by our congregation?

What would change in the way we do church (worship, teach, fellowship, serve, etc.) if we were to ask the “so that” or “to what purpose” questions?

What might happen in the life of disciples in our community of faith if the church were more intentional about what it does?

What would be the result of focusing less on the needs of the institutional church and more on the development of disciples?

How have you seen these questions played out in your own local settings?  How has the thinking on these issues of discipleship versus institutional caretaking evolved within the leadership groups of which you have been a part?  Share your experiences in the comments section.