A good pastor and friend of mine recently asked me a simple question: “Why should I encourage people officially to join the church?” “What do you mean?” I replied. “Well, I have some people who attend regularly, are in a small group, tithe, are in leadership and volunteer at the homeless shelter, but they don’t care to join the church. I’m wondering why I should bother inviting them to do so?”
He invited me to meet with some of his church leaders to talk about this, so I decided in preparation to ask the students in the class I teach at Asbury Seminary Orlando why they thought persons should be encouraged to join the church.
One student immediately asked, “Are you talking about just putting their name on the official membership list or are you talking about them standing up in worship and following the liturgy for membership in which they pledge to support Christ’s work through this congregation by their prayer, presence, gifts, service and witness?” My answer: “Great question! I don’t think having someone’s name on the institutional membership list makes a whole lot of difference to their growth as a disciple. Since the church’s mission is ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,’ that’s the ultimate vantage point by which everything should be considered. So let’s assume we are talking about a congregation receiving someone into their membership as part of a worship service and that the primary question is, ‘In terms of making more and better disciples, should we encourage this or not?’”
Here is a summary of the most important things that we discussed:
It is a rite of passage in which a person publically announces their commitment to follow Jesus as an apprentice and to join him in God’s mission. Choosing to live your life as a person of faith who hopes to become increasingly like Jesus is no small decision. As when making the commitment to live together as husband and wife, there will be times we will be tempted to act in ways that are not in keeping with our commitment. Knowing that we have publicly chosen to live life as a person of faith gives us the personal reminder and the positive peer pressure to be and do what the best part of us is committed to being and doing. In an increasingly secular world in which being a “good citizen” no longer means being a person of faith, this public commitment is becoming increasingly influential.
When a congregation receives people into their membership, they are reminded of their own commitment to follow Jesus as an apprentice and to join him in God’s mission. Through the years of doing weddings, I have always been touched by the way that in the pews couples often hold hands and remember their own commitment before God, family and friends to share life as husband and wife. In a similar way, when a pastor talks about what it means for someone to join their congregation, the pastor is reminding the whole congregation of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. Receiving new persons into the life of the congregation becomes an opportunity to remind people of “who we are.” This is no little thing, because according to Albert Winseman, author of Growing an Engaged Church, only about 50% of churchgoers nationwide believe that others in their congregation are committed to spiritual growth. Isn’t that a bit like half of McDonald’s customers not believing that McDonald’s is committed to selling burgers and fries?!
When a person joins a congregation, they are not only making a commitment to follow Jesus, they are making a commitment to do so as part of a particular community of faith. Indeed, it is a rite of passage into that congregation. They now officially belong. Of course, hopefully, it is just an acknowledgement of what has already long been evolving: they are emotionally engaged with the people in this congregation; they identify with and are one of them. Their discipleship will be lived out incarnate in this congregation and community. Several times when I was a pastor in a congregation, I had people who were very involved in the congregation, but because they were not “members” neither felt that they had a right to call me when they had a pastoral concern nor that their opinions mattered. It was then that I realized that some people don’t feel that they belong to the church family unless they have officially joined.
When a congregation receives people into their membership, the congregation’s members are recommitting to “work out their salvation” together in community; they belong to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Receiving new members is good for the congregation because they are reminded that their salvation journeys are intertwined. It is within the crucible of community that faith is caught, corrected and encouraged. Part of the genius of the Wesley’s was their recognition that we are better apprentices of Jesus Christ together than we are apart. Jesus also said that people would know that they were his followers by the love they have one for another. When conflict inevitably comes up, remembering that we are in this together helps people listen respectfully to others with different points of view and acknowledge times when what’s good for the congregation may go counter to their own personal preferences.
Reflecting on all this, I realize that as a pastor I did not always help my congregation recognize what was happening when we received them into membership. Particularly early on, I welcomed them as if they were joining a health club and failed to give voice to what was happening theologically. I saved time, but I lost an opportunity to shape the culture of our congregation and to remind us all of who we are and what we do.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins