By Dawn Martin Hyde, MDiv ‘12
This Service Book and Rodex belonged to my grandfather, the Reverend William Dickson Varker. He served the PC(USA) as a pastor from 1955 -1991 and this Rodex holds record of the baptisms, marriages and burials he did while serving as pastor of Forest Lake Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC.
I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and my mother to serve the PCUSA and I also keep a record of baptisms, marriages and burials. My records, however, are contained in a google spreadsheet online.
My, how the times have changed!
As I flip through the memories contained in these two books, I am moved by how the work of ministry has stayed the same. Just like my grandfather, I walk with individuals and families exploring the faith. I describe the holy sacrament of baptism and plan the service with those to be baptized. I call the community into covenant relationship with the new believers and we promise together to support one another as we follow Christ. I facilitate couples as they prepare to vow themselves to each other and God in marriage. And I witness to Christ’s resurrection with individuals and families as they confront death.
The work, the ministry, has not changed much at all. Yet, as I look at the tools for record keeping, I quickly realize that the way we do ministry has changed. One of the most notable ways being membership records.
Membership of the church looks differently today than it did in the 50s, 60s, even the 90s. People are seeking a spiritual life where they can be in community with others without all the entanglements of pledging allegiance to a social institution. Generally speaking, people are less willing to commit verbally and formally to an institution, but this does not mean they aren’t committed or willing to become faithful disciples of Jesus.
Our church still functions in old holding patterns. We base decisions of church growth off of membership rolls instead of looking for the vitality – the Spirit of Christ – in our midst.
Our modes of “keeping count” of Christ’s followers have limited us instead of expanding us, requiring newcomers to join this organization in an old fashioned way.
One of the ways this has come up in my ministry is when I walk new members through the membership vows. They are so lengthy, so dependent upon newcomers willingly (or often blindly) accepting centuries of doctrine, that I instead find the energy of Christ present in asking them to write a faith statement and to make these two vows:
Do you believe in Jesus Christ your Savior?
Will you covenant to walk with this Christian community as we covenant to walk with and support you?
I’ve found in my ministry context that people are more concerned with their hearts and minds catching fire with the passion of Christ’s call than they are the certificate of their membership into the church.
I serve a church in San Francisco. We are contextualized by the startup companies and tech boom of our city. Commitment is a scary word, but call, drive, and vision are the language of the people. The language I find in scripture reflecting the Spirit. In San Francisco, if you’re seeking to build membership numbers, you may be in the wrong place. But if you’re seeking to witness Christ in your midst, if you’re willing to have deep theological conversations with new or renewed believers, this is the place to be!
I wonder how my grandkids might encounter the work of my hands. Definitely not in a Rodex and it’s hard to imagine them finding great joy in a few Google spreadsheets. But, maybe Instagram feeds will be retro-cool by then and they’ll be able to see the joy of the moment a child was baptized. They’ll see the faithful witness like I do in this Rodex of memories where my grandfather got to walk in the holy with these Christ-followers.
Church membership rolls are not the way forward, I do not believe. But we should use our current technological tools to keep track of people and their discipleship somehow. We must find ways to document the ways people are being faithful to God’s call in their life and mark those journeys for generations to come.
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