Like many denominations, my own denominational family (The Wesleyan Church) has had numerous conversations through the years about how we should approach the question of membership.
How do we define membership? What is its purpose?
What is the best way to implement it?
Do we raise or lower the bar? Do we open the door wider or close it tighter?
With a millennial generation that does not seem to value institutional membership, do our answers to these questions even matter?
My reading plan this year includes re-reading some books that I’ve found meaningful in the past and want to revisit as I prepare to transition from leading a college back to coaching and consulting with congregations.
One of those books is “Leading Beyond the Walls” by Dr. Adam Hamilton, church planter/lead pastor at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Kansas City. First published in 2002, the book was written when COR was averaging close to 5,000. COR averages more than 7,000 today on the main campus and another 2,000 on regional campuses.
In light of our membership conversations in my home denomination, I was especially interested to learn how Church of the Resurrection approaches membership in their growing congregation.
Hamilton owns the reality that “the loyalty pledge to a denomination is difficult for those under forty to relate to or with integrity to accept.” (p.58) He developed an approach to membership that “lowered the threshold to make it easy for people to join our church, while simultaneously raising the bar of expectations for membership.” (p.50)
This is consistent with their view of membership “as a tool that we think best functions as a step toward true Christian commitment…it signifies a growing desire to identify themselves as Christians and to express commitment to the church.”
Hamilton sees this model clearly aligned the New Testament. He refers to Jesus’ simple invitation “come and follow me.” That was followed by 3 years of intensive discipleship but it began with a positive response to the invitation to join Christ on a journey of learning and obedience.
Hamilton also uses the illustration of Peter’s invitation on the Day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized.” Acts 2:41 records that three thousand responded and were “added to their number.” That comes close to suggesting that the membership roll was comprised of all those who were willing to publicly express their faith in Christ, receive baptism as that visible sign, and align themselves in ongoing fellowship (as depicted in Acts 2:42-45).
Consistent with that perspective, Church of the Resurrection only asks prospective members two questions (p.58):
- Do you wish to be a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ?
- Will you make this your church family, allowing the people of this church to love and care for you, as together we serve God with our prayers, presence, gifts, and service?
Perhaps this seems too easy. However, Hamilton presses on to make it clear “that unlike the American Express Card, membership in our church has no privileges, only expectations.” (p.59)
In their experience, people want their membership to be more meaningful. This orientation toward membership being about responsibilities rather than rights, “makes it all the more compelling.” (p.59)
All members at COR are expected to demonstrate their commitment by: 1) attending worship each weekend (unless sick or traveling out of town), 2) participating in a growth experience in a class or small group, 3) serving at least once each year in the ministries of the church, and 4) financially supporting the church with the goal of tithing. The church not only expects but also inspects to see how the membership is responding to these growth opportunities. At the time of this writing, attendance averaged between 90 and 110% of membership, participation in classes/small groups was 45% of membership, serving at least once each year involved more than 80% of their members, and giving was increasing faster than the growth rate of membership.
For many in my home denomination, this would be a marked departure from our current prescribed model of membership. Honestly, I would not be surprised that this is how a number of our growing churches are actually implementing membership in their ministry context.
One of my friends recently described our model of membership as “a reward for discipleship rather than a door to discipleship.” Is our current model a response to the requirements of creating a reform or protest movement within a majority-Christian context of the 1800s? Was membership then more about creating behavioral identity markers to separate us from other denominational entities? If that was the origin, does it continue to be our purpose?
General Conference 2016 will allow us one more opportunity to have this important conversation.
Here are some of the questions I am asking as we move toward this discussion:
- If we were beginning The Wesleyan Church from scratch as a new missionary movement to reach post-Christian America, what model of membership would we create to help us be most effective as we sought to fulfill the Great Commission in the Spirit of the Great Commandment?
- What model of membership is most consistent with our passion to spread hope and holiness that transforms lives, churches and communities?
- In the Church that Jesus is building, is it most helpful when local church membership is held out as a reward for discipleship or should it be the door to discipleship?
- What membership framework will be most helpful in not only retaining our own next generation (including my children), but in giving them the best opportunity to effectively reach and impact their world for Christ?
- Will The Wesleyan Church, that has meant so much to me, continue to be relevant to them as they launch out on their journey of discipleship and ministry?
Do find these questions compelling? Do you think the answers matter?
I do and I am confident that the leaders of The Wesleyan Church will guide our conversation toward a solution that ensures the maximum possible impact of our Kingdom influence.
I will offer some thoughts based on my experience with my local church. This is purely offered for discussion not as me declaring this to be the best or right approach.
To become a member of my local church requires 3 things: 1) Articulating belief in Christ, and Christ alone for salvation; 2) Publicly expressing that belief through baptism (after salvation); and 3) Attendance of our “Starting Point” class.
The Starting Point class is held monthly on Sunday morning during our two morning services. The class has a three part focus:
1) Clear presentation and explanation of the gospel and the essential elements of the Christian faith. This is done by one of our Pastors. The goal is that every member of our local church is very clear on Gospel and emphasizing scripture as the sole source for our belief.
2) Presentation of how to grow and thrive in our local church. How to get connected in a small group (e.g., Bible fellowship class) and the importance, necessity, and benefit of that deeper connection. What it means to be a member – of course this will include aspects such as giving.
3) Presentation of the ministries of our local church and how to get involved. Methods and techniques are used to help participants understand their gifts and how to join in to Kingdom work.
The Starting Point class ends with one-on-one discussions with our invitation counseling members where we confirm that the first two requirements for membership.
Following the class is a luncheon, where the participants are blended with Pastors and other members. The “other members” represent the different Bible fellowship classes and seek to make friendships with the new members. Of course, many of the new members may have been attending for a while anyway and may already have connections and a Bible Fellowship class.
A few other points:
– 10 to 20% that attend this class end up trusting Christ for salvation for the first time. Many of those may have been in churches for many years.
– Our Bible fellowship classes emphasize involvement in ministries and in many cases “do ministry together” such as mission trips, local mission projects, etc.
– All of the above is for adults. We have a separate approach for children, but children over ~12 yrs old typically attend with their parent (or parents).
– Membership is focused on solid believers in Jesus the Christ, and being connected to local church beyond just Sunday morning attendance.