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.