52,211 is an interesting number that should lead to a lot of rejoicing. That number is the number of “professions of faith” we have had in the Indiana Area during my tenure as bishop. A “profession of faith” is a new member who joins by making a first-time profession of Jesus Christ as Lord, or sometimes it is someone who is being restored to faith. It is not a member who simply transfers into one of our congregations from another UM congregation or from another denomination. So a “PF” is a best measurement of new Christians being welcomed and discipled into our UMC. It is a very important number.
Growth by simply “stealing sheep” or having transfers from other churches is not really growth. But a person who joins us by Profession of Faith is a new convert, or perhaps a person restored to faith who has allowed their church membership to lapse over the years. It includes youth being confirmed into the faith. It includes persons who have been invited, welcomed, and nurturing toward a decision for Christ and the church. It is an important number, and I was pleased to discover that is a LARGE NUMBER here in Indiana. We have a little less than 200,000 adult members in the Indiana Conference, so 52,211 new members by Profession of Faith is great news – and it is worth celebrating.
Of course I am not claiming “credit” for that number. I have only been privileged to serve as bishop and leader for the conference, and I seldom am involved directly in helping new people come to faith (although it happens). So I am not bragging about myself, I am bragging about the pastors and churches of our Indiana Conference. Good job! 52,211 lives changed! Lots of new people brought to faith. Thousands of people discovering the love of God and the welcome of our churches.
Now here is the sobering part of that number 52,211: it was achieved by only about half of our congregations. Nearly half of our congregations did not receive a single new person by Profession of Faith during the past several years. In spite of the fact that we say our mission is “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” only about half of our churches are really doing so. Some of those churches are large, many are small. Size does not seem to matter much, it is more about FOCUS and being intentional in loving people into the faith and into our churches.
So the number 52,211 is worth celebrating, but it is also a challenge to the rest of our pastors and churches to get involved in inviting, welcoming, loving, and nurturing new persons into the faith. How do we do that? I know of one small church in our conference which decided to focus upon two new households in their community – and to “love them into our church.” It took almost two years of praying for them, visiting with them (in a “listening” manner not a “selling manner”), and encouraging them to come to certain events in the life of the church (fellowship events are a great opportunity). It took time, because many persons outside of the faith and outside of the church are not sure that we church people are “trustworthy” – they have been misled and mistreated by too many other people who supposedly were Christians. But that small congregation did it! They “loved into their church” both households over a period of two years, and that led them to discover others whom they could reach and invite.
It all starts with our focus. When our focus as a church is upon ourselves and our own comfort, then we never seem to get around to reaching others. But we become outwardly-focused, then we discover new life for ourselves and others.
I am grateful today for 52,211 people whose lives have been blessed by finding a faith and church home in our United Methodist churches of Indiana. And I pray for thousands more to be brought to faith by our UMC in Indiana. Will you join me in that prayer and in that focus?