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.