Vows are pretty old school. Take marriage vows for instance. “Til death do us part” notwithstanding, these vows have a pretty short shelf life in 40-50% of first marriages and 60% of second marriages. That’s how many end in divorce each year.
Church vows have an even shorter shelf life than marriage vows. How many of you have seen people disappear after they join the church? I’ve seen it more times than I care to admit. They walk in the front door on a Sunday morning and walk out the back down when the service is over, never to return.
Is it that vows have gone out of style or is the wording we supply irrelevant? People still get married; they just don’t all stay married til they die. Likewise, people do still join churches, but they’re unlikely, for all kinds of reasons, to be lifetime members.
We live in a DIY world. From Home Depot to Hobby Lobby to printing your own photos at Walgreens—we expect people to do things for themselves. I even remember when gas stations used to pump your gas for you! What a shock when “servicemen” went away and we had to start pumping our own gas. But as it turns out, many people want to do it themselves. They like the individuality, the creativity, and the personal stamp they get to put on things.   Why should church membership be any different? I think it’s time for the church to give people permission to write their own vows, and make their own commitments to the life of faith and to Jesus.
Just as people write their own wedding vows, I propose DIY membership vows. I know what you’re thinking. “That’s so individualistic. What happened to community? What about communal vows?” I know, but refer back to Home Depot, Hobby Lobby and Walgreens.
In the United Methodist Church, we focus on member-making, not disciple-making. Certainly not apostle-making. We ask would-be members to vow their loyalty to the UMC, and to fully participate in the life of the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and as of 2008, their witness. (Why is it the lower our numbers go, the more we try to structure and legislate growth? An overemphasis on structure is one of the signs of a declining church. It means vision has long since faded away and all that remains is structure. Structure is no substitute for a compelling, life-changing, kingdom-oriented vision!)
So, here we are, asking people to take a vow to an institution when vows to a marriage—the most intimate relationship there is—prove fickle. Seems like we are barking up the wrong tree. As the spiritual but not religious have shown us, people are innately spiritual; they relate to spirituality. It’s religious institutions they don’t necessarily relate to.
Instead of asking people to be loyal to Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Church, what about removing the constraints and simply asking them to be loyal to Jesus Christ? And to their own spiritual journey? I think that’s a fairer reflection of the vision of the United Methodist Church anyway: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Alignment is voluntary, inspired, and a gift. It can’t be forced.
That doesn’t mean we have to do away with an emphasis on spiritual growth through prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. But it could be a starting point for vows, not an ending point. Let me offer the following free form vows as an example:
Prayers

  1. I commit to pray for myself, my friends and my enemies, and for the needs of the world, no matter how overwhelming they may be.

Presence

  1. I commit to remain present to my soul, and to the Maker of my Soul. I commit to remain present to Christians around the world, people of faith around the world, and the needs of my family, my community, and my church. I commit to become present to other people of faith along the way, and to support them along their journeys as well. I commit to be present to the still, small voice, and the everyday miracles of life.

Gifts

  1. I commit to understanding myself as abundantly gifted in this world: in faith, in curiosity, and in humanity. To understand that I have been endowed with gifts that make a difference. I commit to being generous with my finances, my faith, and my friendship to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.

Service

  1. I commit to giving myself away in service. As a follower of Jesus, I commit myself in service to the poor, the forgotten, the hurting, the hungry, the “other”. I seek the way of peace, without losing myself in people-pleasing. I seek the way of love, even when it calls for tough love. I seek the way of justice, without being vengeful.

Witness

  1. I commit to living a life worth emulating. To let my light shine and not hide it under a bushel basket. To live in such a way that others want to know God as well.

There are as many ways to write vows or commitments as there are people who make them. What an interesting new members class it would be if we really delved into what people are committed to, and how the church can help them live out their faith.
Once they’ve become members, or even as part of their journey toward membership, we can offer classes in the spiritual journey that focus on these 5 mileposts. Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance, says that missional churches shift from program development to people development. As we conceive of congregations that reach beyond the walls of the building, our classes need to reflect that.
Wayne Dyer, an American philosopher, was famous for saying that when we change the way we look at things, the way we look at things changes. If we have expectations that people actually resonate with, and give them support, structure, and language to live into those expectations, we honor people and their relationship with God.
Our current membership vows presume the following:

  • People desire conformity rather than creativity.
  • We have to tell them how to behave as disciples.
  • They want to join up with what we’re already doing vs bringing their own ideas with them.

DIY membership vows presume a few different things:

  • God is already at work in the lives of people who come our way.
  • They have a calling that is independent of the church.
  • They have an innate sense of spirituality.
  • They want to contribute their own unique voices.

People want to have their fingerprints on things. As I have written elsewhere, they are much more likely to buy in if they have a chance to weigh in.
If you could write your own membership vows, what would they say?