At my church, we have a pretty significant number of people who are “constituents” of our church and not official members. For various reasons, these people want to be an active part of our congregation but do not want to take the vows of membership and officially become United Methodist. And yet, many of those individuals are just as, if not more, active than the “members” of our church.
At School For Ministry last week, we talked a lot about making disciples, and very little about making church members. And at one point in the conversation, we actually admitted that we don’t really expect people to uphold their baptismal vows. If we did, we would have a structure for responding or holding people accountable to their choices. But we don’t. We baptize them, hold them in our prayers and pray to God that a seed we might have planted would take root.
Contrast that with early Christianity. Baptism was a process you only went through after years of formational training. I’m not sure that “membership” was ever the term used in that time, but certainly one could be excluded from the body for offenses until penance had been made. Confession of faith was extremely important.
Now, our church has very good reasons for upholding infant baptism. It says that baptism is a sign that God’s grace goes before us – even before we are able to respond. But… BUT… baptism is also supposed to be an act of the congregation as we together promise, covenant, commit ourselves to nurturing that baby in the Christian faith.
Perhaps it was because for such a long time, Christianity was just the norm that we lost touch of those promises. The congregation didn’t take seriously their role, because after all, this was a Christian nation and anyone who was raised simply by the culture would be brought up Christian. But that was a false presumption and it has led to whole generations of people who have been formed by the culture’s view of Christianity, rather than God’s view of culture.
So we make members. We ask people to join our club. And we count our success in ministry by the number of people we have on the rolls.
And there is nothing in there about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The big question for me is how do we start? How do I help my confirmation kids, or the baby who will be baptized this next Sunday – but whose parents do not even attend my church (her grandparents do), or the members of my congregation who think that simply by showing up once a month they are living out their commitments… how do I begin to show each of those groups of people that ideally, membership is a process of discipleship?
Let’s look first at the process of membership.
1) we ask people to renounce sin and profess their faith
2) the congregation promises to nurture one another in the faith
3) if someone has not been baptized, we do so
4) if it is someone who was baptized before and is now reaffirming their faith (new members or confirmands) we have a blessing over them.
5) we recieve people into the church with the following vow:
as members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its
ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness? I will.
In our tradition, being a member means taking on those five responsibilities.
And to be honest – I think that they are good commitments to make. I believe that they can be disciple making activities. But the big disconnect is the part where it says “its ministries.” We expect that all of this disciple making will happen in the congregation, or in some way connected to a ministry of the congregation. And it might not. It may be in a bible study at work, or in helping a neighbor, or partnering with community agencies to share your gifts. Our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness will be evidence of our growth as disciples… but we can’t let ourselves be limited to the church. We have to be disciples for the transformation of the world.
Maybe that is my starting place. As we baptise an infant next week, I need to uplift that it is our responsibility to help nurture her wherever in the world she may be. As we get ready to confirm our youth, I need to encourage them to be disciples wherever they may be. And as we go over these membership vows in teaching and preaching in the next five weeks – I need to remind people that this is their responsibility and commitment… and that we need to hold one another accountable to doing so in EVERY facet of our lives.