One hot, summer day in Biloxi, MS, I was sitting outside on a dock at “Sea Camp” with a potential new friend. We were doing what people do when you’re trying to find out more about one another: sharing our favorite music and singing songs from this new movie, “Sister Act” (I’m old y’all!), talking about shaving, because we were 12 and that was new and interesting. I lied and said I didn’t shave my arms because she CLEARLY thought that was NOT cool…I’ve never shaved my arm hair since.
Why is this conversation etched in my memory? Because right after I found out shaving your arm hair is weird to some people, I encountered a world-altering first. I met someone outside in the real world who was United Methodist LIKE ME! I said I went to Beauvoir United Methodist Church and she said she went to Biloxi First United Methodist Church. I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. I remember feeling like we had an instant connection and also like I’d uncovered a new piece of how to understand the world.
I knew there were other denominations because I had neighbors who I went with to Baptist church on Sunday evenings. I knew vaguely about some people being Catholic. At school I had one friend who was atheist and her mom practiced a form of Buddhism. But most of the time, I hung with my group of friends from church. I moved often as a kid and so church was the place I spent time and created friendships.
I didn’t really understand there were several United Methodist churches in one town until that moment. I’d just always thought every town had lots of groups of Christians that believed different things and they all went to the church that matched that. Methodists all went to one, Baptists to another, etc.
After this moment, I started really noticing the churches. I would try to find MY church when we drove around town and wonder about the people worshipping there. I suddenly wanted to uncover the people at school who were like me.
Who were the United Methodists around me? You couldn’t tell simply by looking. They were out there, all around, and I just had no idea.
As I’ve grown older, it’s bothered me that you can’t tell just by looking. Sometimes I’ve longed for the type of denomination or faith that has clear markers saying, “I belong to this tradition.” Veils, yarmulkes, tattoos, Hindu bindi, hairstyles, anything that helps to distinguish a person’s religious identity, are all appealing to me.
I think this is one reason I enjoy wearing a clergy collar. I like people to know this part of me and want to seek others like me. Sometimes I meet a person who works with another United Methodist everyday but neither of them know this about each other. They are colleagues that get along and I think, “Yes, but you could also be colleagues doing the work of Christ TOGETHER if you only were able to share this part of yourself more easily.”
Often we have undercover Methodists all around us, potential partners for living out God’s Good News every day, but none of us know how to find one another. How do you spot a Methodist or how do you identify yourself to others? How does someone know you belong to Jesus Christ and follow him in the way of a United Methodist? How does the average United Methodist WEAR their faith?
After asking this question, a lot of people give the generic answers of “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” or “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words” or the scripture from James 2:20 “Faith without works is dead”.
We talk about knowing Christians by how differently they live but what does that look like for United Methodists? When you join the UMC, we talk about the vows we make together. Vows are solemn promises we dedicate to God. In the United Methodist Church we promise to uphold our church by our:
How will people know you by your prayers? I don’t think this means if you are at work or school, you get on your knees in front of everyone at a set time of day to pray in public. You may conclude that public prayer is a way to live out this vow. However, given Jesus’ admonition to showing off your goodness by praying in flashy ways, I have a feeling there are other ways for people to know you by your prayers.
Perhaps it looks like asking people around you how you can pray for them and talking to people about the things they shared with you. Even this simple act shows you listen and care. They will know you actually remember them on a weekly or daily basis. It may also look like setting time throughout your day to step away from activity and enter a quiet space. People may see you hitting “pause” to collect your thoughts and emotions and they may join you.
A lot of us think this means being present on Sunday mornings and that is certainly part of it. You can spot an undercover Christian if they make time in their lives to gather with other believers. Do you regularly attend a worship service and/or life group throughout the week? Do you sacrifice other opportunities to be with your faith community in time dedicated to honoring God and growing in your faith?
Presence means you are building up the community of faith but it also means you represent the Body of Christ in the world every day. You are present as the chaplain at school or work. Do people seek you for guidance and help? Do they know you as a loving and generous presence in their lives?
These are your offerings—what can you sacrifice, create, give, teach, or do for God, your community of faith, and the world? When people see the value of following Jesus, it is usually because of the generosity of Christians. Early Christians were known for the ways they gave as a community.
No individual has an unlimited amount of gifts they can provide. Yet, when Christians give together, they multiply individual gifts. Giving together creates communities that inspire others to give. One way we can uphold this vow is to give generously to one another and the people we encounter. Gifts can be money. Gifts can also be time or talents that you can share in faithful ways. Notice the gifts of others, whether or not they are Christians, and encourage them in their giving.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, thought it was important Christians focus on more than NOT doing bad things. In his General Rules he said it was important to do good too. We put good actions into the world.
People often know about Christians and the United Methodist Church through the good work we do with others. United Methodists fight to eradicate malaria and establish hospitals. We partner with local schools for educational initiatives, help clean up after disasters, and much more.
Jesus says in Mathew 25: 34-40 that those who feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome a stranger, give clothes to the naked, visit the sick, and visit those in prison are actually doing that work for Jesus Christ. He even says the people doing this work are recognized as members of his flock.
This is the most important way we stop being undercover Christians. We say why we are doing any of the things listed under prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Have you ever done something that makes someone say, “Wow! That was so nice” or “Thank you for helping me”?
When someone does that, be quick to say why you were nice, thoughtful, caring, loving, giving, prayerful, etc. I always say, “Thanks. I’m just trying to be like Jesus and I mess it up a lot. Glad it went well this time.” There are a lot of ways to witness, but I find this to be the most natural and normal for me because it’s true. How is following Jesus changing your life? How can you tell others about that?
If you are trying to do all five of those vows, WOW! KEEP IT UP! I know it takes work and you are probably part of a community helping you keep going—and that community is probably United Methodist.
If you are doing any of these vows, people will probably know you are a really interesting and generous person. Some people may even think you are religious, or even guess that you are Christian. Do you ever feel worried what people will think of you if they know you are Christian? Do you fear the questions they may ask? Be not afraid. Our community is bigger than you think and you are not alone. Talk to someone you know about your fears. Or, if you can, talk to someone who recognized you as a Christian about why that makes you worried—it could lead to an interesting conversation.
If we were working on these vows in our everyday lives, we would probably spot one another. And wouldn’t that be great? To know we aren’t alone? Let’s stop being undercover.