Monday Memo: Seeking Relevance

Terry Walton


Seeking Relevance

I was thinking...

Having been nurtured and mentored through the small membership church, I am eternally grateful for Pomona and Mt. Zion UMC in Griffin, Georgia. My dad was appointed to that charge as I was entering the first grade. He would Pastor those two small churches as a Part-time local pastor until I was finishing my junior year in college. Those people…Sunday School teachers, youth counselors, encouragers of all walks in life, shaped me, held me accountable and created a nest for children and youth like me to grow in Christ. They were mostly blue-collar churches with innate wisdom and commitment to Christ through the Church and that spoke loudly to shape my spiritual DNA.

Most United Methodist Churches are small rather than large. Yet often, I sense the small membership church struggles with her identity and often has a low self-esteem. The issue for any church is not size…it is relevance. Is the church, large or small, relevant to its community in which God planted her to serve. When any church loses its relevant reputation, it will begin to decline and struggle. The question for any church is simply this: “Will the community miss us, if we are gone?” The small membership church can have just as much relevance as a large church…but at any size, discovering what is relevant and being nimble to shift in relevance as the community may change, takes hard work, a lot of love and a lot of prayer.

As a United Methodist Pastor, I have served churches of all sizes. I have seen the struggle for relevance at all levels. The obstacles are often shrouded in phrases like: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Or “If the Bishop would just send us the right preacher, then we’d grow.” Or “We can’t afford to do anything different. We can barely keep the lights on as it is.” Or “We don’t have any youth or children.” Or “We don't want drums in the sanctuary.” Or “We are not going to change the time of worship. We’ve been worshiping at 11 forever.” And the list goes on.

Small or large, the churches that will thrive in the future are the communities of faith that choose to be ‘faith walking churches’. The churches that choose to listen to their communities, hear their heart and address their needs in the name of Christ are the ones that will find relevance. The days are long gone where “If you build it, they will come.” Perhaps the best phrase for these days is “If you go to where they are, then they will know you care.” Generally speaking (and it pains me to write this), most of the world’s population doesn’t see us church folk as people who genuinely care about their hopes and dreams. They see us as irrelevant, and they have lost respect for the church. They see us as always fighting among ourselves and as entities that are cliquish and unwelcoming. They have enough pain in their lives, why would they want to come to the place of religion for more of the same?

While these days of pandemic, endemic, etc. are different…they are days not to be filled with discouragement. These are days of great opportunity. It is a different world in which we live. What an opportunity to be creative and to ‘seize the day’ for Christ and His church. But we must do it differently…it will require prayer, hard work and compassion for the communities in which God has planted God’s people…the church.

The question is “Are we willing to go in the name of Jesus the Christ?” Our children and grandchildren can be great benefactors of our willingness to be relevant again. It was Jesus who said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33 NRSV) We can fret over these days, or we can seize them… what is your choice? What is my choice?

Always Thinking…

The Rev. Dr. Terry E. Walton
Executive Assistant to the Bishop

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