Watch Your Step: Meaningful Membership

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

A church I used to serve had a food bank sponsored by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

The food bank was built by church volunteers using funds from the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation.

Regularly we would feed over 600 adults and over 300 children every month through our partnership. We operated using the “client choice” model, meaning that our clients got to walk through our food bank, “shop” for what they wanted (it was free to them), and then “check out” with members of our United Methodist Women who would bag their groceries for them. Our United Methodist Men and Youth would take our clients’ groceries to their cars for them, blessing them and inviting them to church. It was, is, and continues to be one of the best food ministries in the surrounding area.

I was appointed to this church at the age of 21. In many areas of leading I had no idea what I was doing, and for the first two years it really showed. I was planning with the love of my life, Aly, for our engagement and marriage. This unexpected appointment to lead a church quadrupled what I was making monthly, provided a house, and provided health benefits and a pension plan. This allowed us to get married one year earlier than we planned. Needless to say, going from $400.00 each month to $2,000.00 was exciting, and moving from a college dorm into a three bedroom house was overwhelming. I felt so very blessed. I continued to commute to Oklahoma City University as I pursued my B.A. in Religion and, wet behind the ears, I began to lead a local congregation.

One morning, a woman called the church the day after our monthly food bank distribution. She had been unable to get to the church. This was common; many people either did not have transportation or could not afford gas for their vehicles. She gave me her address and asked if I would be willing to bring some food to her and her children. I agreed.

I filled a few sacks with food, loaded them up in my car, and made my way east of town toward a large prison that this community housed. I turned south onto a road, passing a few houses. I then passed smaller houses and groups of trailers. I finally occasionally passed some trailers in worse condition and spread much farther apart. It was then that I got to this woman’s house.

This is not her house, but it is the closest I can come to showing you the state of her living space.

I grabbed the groceries from the back of my car and made my way to the front door – only, it wasn’t a door. This woman had tacked a blanket to the door frame. I knocked on the frame, pulling back the blanket, and announced that I was from the United Methodist Church and I had some food for the family.

“Come in,” I heard the woman say, “and watch your step.”

She did not tell me to watch my step because her living room/dining area/kitchen were messy. If I had told someone to watch their step coming into my dorm at OCU, it would be for that reason. No, she told me to watch my step because there were holes in the floor. Every day, this woman and her husband tread carefully, and strive to ensure that their children do the same.

I saw the holes as I walked in and she immediately felt the need to explain. She said these words:

“We are living a little below our means so we can do better for our kids.”

Like the rich ruler of Luke 18, I went away from that meeting sad, because comparatively I had great wealth. I struggled not to stop at Starbucks in the morning, or felt oppressed that I didn’t have the extra funds for the new TV I wanted at Wal-Mart. I was jealous of our friends who made more than us. In my first appointment, I looked at pastors in larger churches with higher steeples and bigger paychecks with envy. How wrong I was. If I lived just a little below my means, I would be nowhere near a crumbling trailer and a food bank. Yet this woman and her husband were making a great sacrifice to save and spend in ways that would provide a better life for their children in the long run. Suddenly, my first-world ‘problems’ seemed to fade.

I want women like this mother in my church. So does this guy:

Wesley often drew near ideologically to the words of Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah, calling out the “Cows of Bashan” and the people laying on beds of ivory and drinking their fill of wine. When Wesley said “Save!” he didn’t mean develop a handsome savings account at a bank. He meant “Economize!” – find a way to live below your means.

The people drawn to the Methodist Church in the Awakening and the Westward Expansion were women, freed slaves, and coal miners that no one else wanted. However, once the church began to grow – as it came into its time of having a number of buildings for ministry only second to the Post Office – we began to focus inward. The Church began accumulating savings. The Church began renting out pew spaces and heaters for the sanctuary. The people who were afflicted became comfortable. Many were like the rich ruler of Luke 18: they knew the Law; they observed the Sabbath; they worshipped regularly; they refrained from lying, theft, adultery, and murder. However, when Jesus asked the ruler, asked them, and asks me and you to sell our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, we all walk away sad.

There is an interesting set of statistics for people in the United States who give to churches and charities. People who make less than $10,000.00 annually give, on average, 5.3% of their income in offerings the Church and all charities. People who make more than $200,000.00 give, on average, 0.7% of their income in offering to the Church and all charities. Everyone in between averages 3.1%. These percentages come from Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. The more we make, the less we give. I don’t need to remind anyone that the United Methodist Church in the United States is shrinking, growing in its percentage of middle and upper-middle class Caucasians, and increasing the amount of money we are spending on a decreasing membership. What would it look like for churches to live a little below their means? I ask this question with trepidation. I am a pastor in a growing congregation that is opening a new Christian Life Center next month. We’ve raised a lot of money for that project, and I am paid by the generous people of the church. This building is going to house our new, growing worship service, and bring in groups from the community to take part in the life of our church. Don’t get me wrong – I believe in this building, and I believe in getting my salary!

One way that living below our means can begin to take effect in the church is to make it a place that is welcoming to the poor. We can develop a philosophy of generous hearts that welcomes in people who only have the proverbial two coins, and to learn from their example, from the example of the people making less and giving more, and apply that learned lesson to our membership vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. 

Another way that living below our means can begin to take effect in the church is to make it a place of mutual accountability for disciples. We need to be able to talk about our money and our church’s money without fear or reservation. Across the denomination, Financial Peace University, coupon classes, and budget planning courses are being offered to people inside and outside the Church who are living in what Adam Hamilton calls the age of “Affluenza” (wishing to appear wealthier than we are) and “Credit-itis” (the results of Affluenza that find us in debt).

To live below our means is to live a life of sacrifice. To sacrifice in our prayers is to pray more often, and with more intercession. To sacrifice in our presence is to show up to church, bringing with us our time, talents, and dollars – living our membership vows in the presence of the community of faith. To sacrifice in our gifts is to spend some of the time we save for doing things we want and doing things that the Church needs. To sacrifice in our service is to live lives that are wrapped up in improving and demonstrating resurrection and reconciliation in the lives of others. To sacrifice in our witness is to live lives that broadcast the Good News of Jesus Christ, to be disciples whose prayers, presence, gifts, and service shine light on the love of God through Christ.

The words of that mother will haunt me forever, and admonish me when I complain about my setting and station. As I stray from my vows to the one who proclaims release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty for the oppressed; when I wander away from the one who declared that the time had come that God who save God’s people; when I turn from the one who healed the sick and ate with sinners; when I seek out new members for the Church who look like me, and don’t reflect the surrounding neighborhood of my church; when I grumble, even having everything I need and some of the things I want, I hear in the back of my mind

Watch your step. 

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