Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


An E-interview with Evangelism Award Recipient James Farmer

Rev. Jim Farmer
The Rev. James Farmer, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick, Md., is a 2005 recipient of the Harry H. Denman Award for Evangelism presented by the Baltimore-Washington Conference. He was recognized because of his effectiveness in reaching people who join the church on profession of faith -- brand new members as distinct from those transferring from other congregations or denominations. In 2002 the Baltimore-Washington Conference reported that almost 200 churches in the conference had received no new members --not one-- by profession of faith the previous year, and in 2003 the Rev. Rodney Smothers told the conference that 40 percent of United Methodist churches nationally had not received a single new member by profession of faith in the past year. Untied Methodist asked Rev. Farmer to share insights into his church's effectiveness at reaching new members.

Are there secrets you can share about your church's effectiveness at reaching new members -- people who are not already church members somewhere else?

Dean, there are no secrets I have discovered over the years. In each of my three appointments I have been privileged to serve in churches and communities that have been receptive. The successes are tempered further in that in our polity our confirmation classes are part of the profession of faith category.

I remember an earlier Connection interview from the 1980s where I said, "New branches bring new fruit." It was the new members that were bringing new people to church. Today that is still true; older established families rarely invite others to visit the church. The only difference I see today is that it is not only new families in the church but those whose faith is fresh and current. Most of our witness to God's work in our lives becomes dated and old when it should be as fresh as today. People are excited about God working today.

If there were a secret to reaching unchurched new members, I believe it is caring that they are unchurched. Before programs and events there must be a heart for the lost, those without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If we truly care we will invite them to a journey of

What role does a pastor play in helping to create a congregational spirit that supports reaching new people?

I believe the pastor/staff are critical to setting the temperature, to establishing the climate of caring and acceptance that is necessary. As you well know, the congregation will often follow the heart of the pastor. Without your heart for social ministry, Foundry would not be the church it is in the larger Washington community. Sermons, teaching, and personal action are all a part of opening your own heart and communicating the importance of reaching out to and making a place for new folks in our shared life together.

Is preaching important in reaching new members? Can you summarize the core message you emphasize in your preaching?

Preaching is very important in a variety of ways. It is the event that gives us the opportunity to reach the largest number of people and to offer the heart of Christ. Luke 19:10 and many other scriptures remind us that Jesus came for the lost. It is not the healthy but the sick.

My preaching and my life are out of a deep gratitude for the love of God in Christ. My personal journey is not one of a perfect climb rather I have been forgiven much and having nearly lost my life in Viet Nam a long time ago. It is now lived thanking God for each day.

How do you get the word out to your community that new people are welcome?

We invite the larger community to all of the ministries of Trinity Church, via mass mailing, personal invitation, and the televising of our weekly worship. The local access cable is a good way to for the local community to get to know our congregation . The primary tool, however, is a personal invitation to join us in worship. Each individual can influence others in ways the entire congregation cannot.

How do you extend an invitation to membership?

We extend an invitation to discipleship at the end of each service and have new member orientation days three or four times a year, depending on need.

Each of our three services offer a welcome to guests and, at the offering time, they are ask to be our guest for our offering time in an opportunity for those of us making our church home here to return to the Lord our tithes and offering. Following worship or at announcements folk are invited to consider becoming a member.

Are most of those who join by profession of faith people who were raised in church but became inactive, or are you seeing many people with no church background whatsoever? Do those who join by profession of faith tend to be people who were already believers in Jesus Christ but not church members or are these brand new Christians?

Most who join by profession of faith are those who have not been in church since childhood and are looking for spiritual meaning in their lives. Some are folks who have never attended church; however, they are the minority. Most seem to have a basic belief in Christ but no framework around what that means.

Even in confirmation we sometimes encounter young persons with no real faith experience. It is not uncommon to baptize both parent and child at the same time. These are folk who have been raised with church in their lives.

Are there any special efforts you need to make to incorporate people who are not experienced church members into the life of your congregation?

There needs to be an effort to receive and accept these new persons as they are and to get them into our Nurture/Discipleship ministries as soon as possible. In addition to Disciple Bible Study, which may well be too much for a brand new person, we have a variety of other studies and small groups that can help to continue the growth process. We use both a Spiritual Gifts inventory and Every Member in Ministry inventory from the new member orientation to help in this process. Being attentive to the present needs of the person is critical, as you well know. Helping the present membership understand all of this is difficult but necessary.

Do you hold new member classes? If so, what are they like?

As I mentioned earlier, we do have new member classes (more orientation). We go over the Trinity story, have a ministry team presentation of an overview of current ministries and a time of sharing Wesleyan theology and polity. This is an important piece for, in addition to brand new Christians, there are folk from three to five denominations other than Methodist in their background. The understanding of Sacraments, basic theological thought and how the church is structured is important. We also share about what it means to be a member. It is a time of commitment rather than a time to receive benefits.

We give out a packet of information from each of our ministry areas and, as mentioned, give a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. We usually have a family from the early days of the church to share about that time, a new person or family and I cast the vision of the future as I understand it. As you can see this is a major process for us.

Is it ever threatening to long-established members to have new people coming into membership? In your experience, is there a limit to a congregation's capacity to incorporate new members into their fellowship?

It can be very threatening to established members, and it is something we continually look at. There is always a shift taking place and it is important that in major things folks from each era of the congregation are present. When major issues are before us we want everyone and every voice present.

I believe the capacity for incorporation will vary according to the congregation and the size of the congregation. By adding ministries, integration is not as difficult. Adding to existing groups can be more problematic. The addition of staff brings new persons and ministries
into their own place and space in the church.

Are there any books you have found helpful in thinking about how to reach new people?

From the early days I read about the program at Frazer Memorial UMC called Every Member In Ministry. I have visited Saddleback, Willow Creek, First Church of Houston, COR, churches in Denver and Colorado Springs, and read book upon book about church growth, and have incorporated principles that are transferable. Size, scale and location are very different yet common principles can be used.

One of the best today is Adam Hamilton from Church of the Resurrection. He is young, bright and effective, I find his writing about the church today to be excellent. All of us, though, must be authentic. We can only offer what we have.

What else can you share about reaching new members that would be helpful to other United Methodists?

I hesitate to offer to others because I am truly the least of these. In 22 years I have been privileged to receive many person into membership and to help many along their journey of faith, some 400+ of these have been by profession of faith. I am thankful to God for allowing me to be a part of this ministry. There are many among us with much more wisdom and ability. I look to learn from all. I am continually looking for new and different ways of reaching others for Christ.


Blogger John said...

Great interview!

Right now, our Evangelism chair is a former Baptist minister, so we're following an unfamiliar approach. He is initiating home visitations and a greeting table at the front door of the sanctuary.

One idea that we're working on is common in Baptist and Pentecostal churches: after the service, visitors can go to a small room and meet with the pastor for a few minutes. Our pastor hasn't bought into it yet, but we're trying.

9:17 AM  

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