Friday, September 27, 2013

What About Church Membership?

Membership can be controversial.  On the one hand, American’s mistrust institutions as a whole so are less likely to “join” them as members.  On the other hand, American’s have fiercely loyal tribal and brand identities (you’ll pry my Apple product from my cold, dead hands!). People pay massive amounts of money each year to upgrade, participate in and promote their ‘brands’ (be it the latest android driven tech or sports jersey).  

Church membership is core to Free Methodist identity. There are many biblical arguments for church membership, and many that would seem to make it irrelevant, the Bible alone does not provide the clearest guidance on the topic. Many large denominational churches in America are shrinking, though  they often hold membership dear. Then again, many large non-denominational churches that reject membership on principle are also in crisis and shrinking. Church shrinkage is not a function of whether or not a group has membership. Neither is church growth a function of membership. However, the largest percentage of churches that are growing, whether they are denominational or independent, do in fact have membership in one form or another.

Church membership is an important tool in healthy spiritual and character formation when membership means something.  Growing, healthy congregations generally have membership criteria is clearly articulated, simple to apply and creates a higher standard of expectation among the church as a whole. Sometimes clearly articulating membership means not calling it "membership." Some refer to a faith or church covenant, or growth principles. 

Membership can be seen as something like, “I pay my entrance fee and get my membership with my secret decoder ring.” It is unhealthy when members have the right to vote on significant matters of church direction but do not participate fully in the major aspects of the covenant. For example, very destructive events in a church’s history have occurred when a building project is under way, or a new pastor is coming into the church, or significant outreach plans are being considered and members who rarely attend church, do not contribute to the financial well-being of the church and who do not engage in the communal spiritual growth practices like small group discipleship or evangelistic outreach come out in droves to block the progress of the active participants who may not be actual "members" but are actually engaging Jesus.  Yikes! It happens.

To make membership dependent upon behavior that conforms to a checklist, however, seems fairly unproductive and outside the realm of a spirit-of-grace-apart-from-the-law. We believe in grace and the power of a spirit-filled community to have a positive impact on people who connect with such people (the church).  For example, Free Methodists believe that infants and children may be baptized because they understand the rite as a means of grace, per Paul’s teaching in Romans, that is not unlike Old Testament circumcision – a community act of faith on behalf of one not able to actively participate in faith that identifies that child in a binding, covenantal manner to the community faith.  In other words, it’s like saying, in the sight of God we declare this child to be one of us and is under the protection of God and this church. Of course, that child may choose a different course come age of reason, but the child is not excluded from the means of grace, growth and good discipleship in community simply because she doesn’t understand what it all means yet.

Who does understand "what it all means" anyway? I have yet to find an elder of the highest character or deepest intellect that could, with a straight face anyway, declare to have perfect knowledge of God’s own doctrine and perfect practice of God’s holiness. That is not to say that Christians cannot mature and grow, and even by a work of God’s grace, be so full of the Holy Spirit that her imperfect knowledge and imperfect behavior is nonetheless motivated, inspired and characterized by the love and peace of God. But in my experience, even this "entire sanctification" is not the rule of thumb.

So how perfect should we expect our church members to be?  What should we require of them?

The Free Methodist Church has a membership covenant.  It is a solid statement of our community understanding of the teachings of Scripture as applied to our current era, and it contains a great deal of guidance regarding biblical doctrine, human relationships, health and well-being and more.  I am a Free Methodist Superintendent, though an inductee to the Free Methodist Church after having lived a life of sin, addiction, anger, malice, racism and rage – set free by God’s grace in Christ’s salvation. I was not raised Free Methodist. But I have been part of the church for some time now and love it with every fiber of my being. I agree with our membership covenant, and seek to be guided by it, though I have not always agreed with each jot and tittle of it, yet do live in harmony with the covenant and to promote it as biblical, healthy and reasonable. 

The Free Methodist "membership covenant," however, has been identified by the denomination as discipleship guidelines. That is, our doctrine, practice and relationships should be growing in ever increasing ways to harmonize with the principles of the covenant. Full adherence to the covenant is not required prior to becoming a member.  

Here is what is required to become a member of a Free Methodist Church. These are meant to allow membership to be as closely tied to biblical conversion and informed healthy community principles as possible without a holiness that is rule-based rather than grace-empowered. These are the ABC’s of what we commit to as members of a Free Methodist congregation (I paraphrase the Book of Discipline ¶8800):

A) I believe God has forgiven my sins through faith in Jesus, that the Bible is God’s Word and my authority and I commit to growing in Christ, the move of the Spirit in my life, and the nurture of the church.
B) I accept and will live in harmony with the Free Methodist constitution which guides doctrine, church governance and conduct. 
C) I will embrace the mission of the Free Methodist Church and participate to fulfill that mission through giving my time, talents and resources. 

The good news with this criteria for membership is that it allows for members to be received and to actively participate in the blessings of the church, and to bless the church and community, fairly early in their connection with Jesus as savior and the church as an enfolding and nurturing expression of the body of Christ.
I have tried to articulate the iPath for the NCC: iNvite, iNcrease, iNvolve and iNvest.  As a church is about the business of inviting people to consider the claims of Christ, and increase the likelihood of a positive response through acts of intentional hospitality and demonstrations of love, they will also need to immediately involve those who express interest in Jesus and the church.  Do not put people in a long waiting cue of various tests and hurdles before involving them in ministry and membership! That’s a sure fire way to impede the work of the Spirit and growth of the church. Immediately give those who show interest some way to be involved, to serve, to grow, to give, to pray, to be prayed for, to learn, to teach.  As soon as someone expresses faith in Christ, and a love for the church that has loved them, and a desire to connect, and as soon as they know what that means, invite them into membership. 

With General Conference approaching in 2015, I wonder if there are ways to improve how we view and implement membership.  Is there different language to communicate biblical community and membership principles that may speak to our culture more effectively?  Are there different standards that should be embraced?  For example some churches have made faith in Christ primary, and then have articulated more clearly than the membership ritual does, that a member must A) Attend worship regularly, B) Give faithfully, C) Connect with a  growth group and D) Serve in some way.  What do you think? If there was a way to improve membership practices and initiation in the Free Methodist Church, what would it be?

Send your ideas to me, Supt. Mark Adams, and I will eagerly and prayerfully be considering each one.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who's Gonna Do It? Finding and Growing Fruitful Leaders

   The pastor moaned, “There’s no one stepping up to lead.” “There aren’t enough volunteers to run the food ministry,” complained the coordinator. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest field,” (Luke 10:2) said Jesus.
   Excellent leaders and fruitful servants abound. The Father endowed everyone with gifts, passions, abilities and experiences which Christ purposes to bring ripe spiritual everywhere. But these gifted, fruitful leaders often start out hidden and buried right in front of us. Buried beneath layers of lack of belief, poor vision, insecurity, ridiculous expectations, and lack of love.
   Great commission people will be daily looking for others to invest in. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Go, make disciples.” Those with “eyes to see and ears to hear” will find leaders in their midst.
   What do we look and listen for? In my experience there are visible signs that someone, with your investment, will soon shine as a leader.

   Look for people who assume responsibility, and refuse to blame others when things go wrong; and better yet, give others credit when things go right. Look for people who embrace learning, ask questions, and when corrected embrace the opportunity to grow rather cry, “well then, you can just find someone else if I’m not good enough.” Look for the courageous and “mavericky” spirit that asks questions about how things are done, or is unafraid to express a well-considered opinion – particularly when it pertains to a problem’s solution. Look for people who seem to put the good of others or the organization above themselves. Look for people who tend to have others around them and who invite or encourage others to do stuff and be with other people.
   Every church has people like this, and they are solid gold. Bring it to the surface. Here’s how.
   Spend time with your emerging leader. Reflect openly and personally with them the positive characteristics and potential that you see. You’re belief in them is an extension of the “shield of faith.” It clears away muddy lack of belief.  
   Invite the neophyte to join with you on your big mission to change the world by taking on a particular task, while explaining personally why you know them to be capable. Share your vision, and give them an opportunity to see how they fit into the larger picture which expands their own vision and empowers their God-given purpose.
   Promise to be with them, guide them, pray with them, instruct and resource them along the way. Keep your promise. Insecurity and ineffectiveness are not resolved through pep-talks, but through learning skills and being given experiences to grow. This only happens when you do it with your “disciple”. And soon insecurity is replaced with confidence in God’s gifting.
   Let the emerging leader emerge! Give immediate opportunity to do something, with your support. Something other than attending another class or waiting until their life meets your view of the perfect leader. I’m not suggesting you put a newbie on the board of administration, but too many churches are infantilized by leaders with ridiculous expectations of who can play any fruitful role in the life of the church. Everyone, at every stage of spiritual or leadership development, can and should be invited to contribute in some way.
   Wrap it in love. Love is the life-giving living-water that softens the hardest soil to bring forth the sweetest fruit . . . over time. 
   Do this, and you will not lack for leaders, and servants who love you and your church as you partner together in Christ. 
   Or . . . you could just put another blanket announcement in your bulletin that you have a need. Though I suspect that even Jesus, if he had relied on a synagogue bulletin announcement, would have failed to acquire even 12 twelve disciples. Jesus with all His “Son-of-God” power and charisma, had to call each one by name, and invest years in loving, training, believing in, encouraging, forgiving and growing his movement-makers. So do you.