April 20, 2009

making members, making disciples

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.


  1. I'm glad you're addressing these questions, Katie-- especially on your blog so others outside your congregation as well as those in it can join the conversation.

    I struggle with our understanding of membership in the United Methodist Church as well. In conversations with the folks who brought us the "new" categories of "baptized" and "professing" membership, I believe they were making a genuine effort to connect professing membership to discipleship in and through the congregation. It's a working platform we can at least start from. That's a good thing.

    Trouble is, as you are noting, and as I noted last week, our congregations simply are not set up directly to support much more than "informed baptized membership." Professing membership, if it is to be a rough equivalent for "discipleship to Jesus," may be somewhat beyond the capacity of congregations, as congregations, to support directly themselves. The demands of discipleship to Jesus may even be incompatible with much of congregational culture.

    What if, however, the discernment about whether persons were indeed living as professing members was made primarily in intentional discipleship groups more or less "outside" the congregation-- like the class meetings of early Methodism. Persons who wanted to become professing members would need to seek to live out the baptismal covenant with one of these "bands of sisters and brothers" who would watch over each other in love and help each other live in this way. In early Methodism, after all, it was these people, represented in the class leader, who would make a recommendation to the Methodist Society about whether a "trial member" could be received as a "full member" of the society after that "trial member" had been with the class meeting, seeking to live the General Rules, for six months.

    Or at the very least, what if such a word coming from folks who are trying to live out the faith with each other diligently were given at least some substantial weight in discerning whether initially to receive a person as a professing member, and, over time, whether to continue them in the status, or suggest a return to "baptized member" if they were not continuing to manifest "fruit?"

    The Discipline nowhere forbids such a practice. This could be implemented starting today and going forward-- provided you had vital disciple-forming groups (class meetings) to refer these folks to for living out their baptismal commitments accountably.

    Until those groups exist and those referrals are made, and even, perhaps, for a generation or two after that happens, I guess I'm not optimistic that we will make much progress is moving "professing membership" from a sort of "tenured title" status to a vital indicator of ongoing real discipleship to Jesus.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  2. Katie, I too continue to work through this process and I believe it is often up to the pastor to lead a congregation to where they need to go. When I first came to this church membership and baptism were passed out to whoever would come forward. Now we have grown to a four part membership process. I remind all that go through it membership does not have its priviledges, but is a commitment. If they just want to "recieve" from our church they are welcome to do that. However membership means more will be expected like participation in at least one service group and one discipleship group. (I also don't look to membership as the main indicator of what God is doing in people, but rather participation in worship and small groups.)
    As for baptisms, it is again up to you to teach people about it and say no if you feel it is not going to be doing God's work.
    Just some of my thoughts.

  3. I think I'm realizing that I'm torn between the idea of making membership and discipleship the same thing... as in, making membership more like discipleship, having a more thorough process, etc.


    do we really keep with our parish system origins of the church that is open to everyone - no matter who they are - and then encourage those from that group (gasp - along with people who aren't in the church) to become disciples. The more I think about Wesley's societies, the more I lean towards the second option.

    In many ways - I take pride in the fact that we are a church who will baptize, marry and bury anyone (well, most anyone - we still haven't worked out how to support our LGBT brothers and sisters). That's what prevenient grace is all about. God's word is being spoken to people that other churches wouldn't dare let in the door. So I think we need to throw the doors wide open.

    BUT - at the same time - we need to be as committed to forming serious committed and accountable disciples.

    Maybe that is the distinction between "baptized" and "professing" members - although perhaps we need a third category above and beyond those two.

    If I'm rambling - it's because I've had cough medicine with codine and really should be in bed by now =)