In my travels this summer, I visited Embrace United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The church is six years old and has an average worship attendance of about 1,400. On the Sunday when I was there, I observed many of the things that vital congregations do to be effective in reaching their community and connecting people to Christ. But one thing really caught my attention. All over the walls in the gathering space, and in the bookstore, there were these little placards, and they told a story. I can’t quote them exactly, and I didn’t think to take a picture of them, but one essentially said something like: “I am a mother and a wife, working a full-time job, loving and caring for my kids and my husband and seeking to listen to that still-small voice of God. I am Embrace.” Each one described a different person, and each one ended with “I am Embrace.”
So, what was so notable about these little cards? As I read them, I saw lots of different people described there, and I got a sense there would be room for someone like me as well. That is huge to a new person wondering “Will I fit in here?” But what struck me even more is that they did not say “I belong to Embrace,” or “I am a member of Embrace,” or “I attend Embrace.” They said “I am Embrace.” They not only described people, they described a relationship and a community. They were reinforcing something very important with the people who were already connected to Embrace.
A new identity in the body of Christ
I was in conversation with two clergy who were working on improving their leadership development process. We were using the language of recruiting volunteers, so we asked, “What is the fundamental understanding of our church in this congregation?” Is it an organization I choose to participate in for all sorts of good reasons and find meaningful, but essentially I see as another activity in my life, and I pay for the services of that organization through my giving and I expect the staff to perform said services, and I will contribute what time I can find to give after work and family and my other primary obligations? Or, if the church is the body of Christ as the apostle Paul described it, how does that change our sense of relationship? Now, it is not just something I go to or attend or volunteer at. It is who I am. When I am baptized into Christ, I am brought into the body of Christ, and I have a new identity and relationship. In the body of Christ, I love, I support, I encourage, I teach, I forgive, I pray, I live. This is my tribe. These are my peeps. They are me. I am them.
“I am Embrace.” I don’t know enough about that church to know how people there talk about ministry and how it is accomplished. Are they recruiting volunteers and filling committees or are they empowering people to live out their calling and identity? I know it is not as simple as I am making it sound. Any community, as it grows, has to develop systems and processes, and requires investment and hours to make things happen. But I am pondering how we fundamentally understand church, and does that change anything? Do I go to church, and perceive it is the responsibility of someone else (pastor and staff) to make sure the gospel is shared, and I will help out when I can? Or am I the church, and therefore the gospel shared is all about who I am and what I do and how I live? And this church community, what it is and isn’t, is my responsibility because “I am Embrace.”
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church