This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Ministry of Members.



            I have heard some basic and common misconceptions about church membership.  They all have at least one thing in common: they are all self-serving strategies for avoiding the demands of actual discipleship
            First is the idea that “Jesus did it all for me, therefore I don’t have to do anything.”  It is true that our life in the faith is based on what Jesus did and taught, and that Jesus does reconcile us to God and manifest the resurrection.  But this truth, far from exempting us from any responsibility, positively demands a response from us.  Jesus is always instructing his disciples to keep his commandments.  He gives them a new way to live and empowers them to live that way in his new community of those whom he calls. 
            This is so ridiculously obvious that I shouldn’t even have to mention it.  Unfortunately, I have heard this argument made more than I care to remember from people claiming to be Christians.  And even people who know better than to make the argument, often act this way.  More sophisticated Christians might even piously claim that the idea that people have a responsibility to respond to Jesus by changing their behavior is “works righteousness,” which is supposed to be a really bad thing.  But that could only be true if we were trying to earn our salvation from God as a reward for our good behavior.  In reality, the disciple responds in trust, obedience, and thanksgiving to what Jesus has already done.
            The second misconception is that our religious life is somehow separate and isolated from every other part of our life, so that what we do and say in church has no relationship to how we act in our family, work, educational, economic, or political life.  This would be to import the secular principle of the separation of church and State into the life of the disciple, and hold to a kind of separation of our spirituality from our secular life.  In reality, the correct term for such a separation is hypocrisy, and it is one of the more destructive things non-Christians see when they look at us.  We say nice things in church, but the rest of the time we are pervaded by bigotry, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed, and self-centeredness.  The truth is that there is no such thing as the “secular” or worldly life distinct from our religious or spiritual commitments.  Everything we do, whether it is in the workplace, the classroom, the shopping mall, the voting booth, or on the Garden State Parkway, is an expression of our discipleship of Jesus Christ.
            Finally, the third misconception is that the church has hired professionals to be responsible for religion and spirituality on the people’s behalf, once again exempting members from many of the demands of discipleship.  It is the paid professional who does all the praying, Scripture study, visitation, meeting leadership, evangelism, and so forth.  They have the specialized training and the members pay her or him to do these things for them.  Once again, even if this view is not always articulated verbally, it is evident from the way people act.
            If we manage to divest ourselves of these three misconceptions, what we are left with is an opening to Jesus’ actual teachings about discipleship.  That is, that discipleship extends into and embraces one’s entire life.
            The Presbyterian Book of Order begins the Form of Government section with a chapter on the local congregation.  This in itself is significant.  It recognizes that the congregation is the primary place where God’s mission happens.  In other words, congregations do not exist to support the mission of the national denomination, as was thought during the dark days of the “corporate” church in the mid-twentieth century.
            Then the chapter continues, and includes a summary of what is expected from every member of a church.  Not just the pastor, or the elders and deacons, everyone.  It is found in G-1.0304.
      1.    Proclaiming the good news in word and deed. 
            This doesn’t necessarily mean actually preaching sermons; we proclaim the good news by exhibiting forgiveness, empathy, non-violence, patience, and love in our lives.  As St. Francis taught his brothers, “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.”  Our actions and behavior have to “preach.”  That is how the good news of God’s love for the world gets communicated.
      2.     Taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation. 
            Members are expected to show up according to their ability.  A few times a year doesn’t cut it.  Even if they attend worship every week, disciples are not spectators.  We are all participants.  Fortunately, many churches are moving away from the model where everything is done by one person up front, at most backed up by some musicians.  They are opening up even the planning of worship and mission to include the participants in the community.
      3.    Lifting up one another in prayer, mutual concern, and active support. 
            This is not just the job of the pastor, elders, and deacons; everyone is expected to pray for each other, and concerns in the wider world, regularly.  Presbyterians most certainly are not proficient at prayer these days.  Often it is reduced to giving God a to-do list.  But prayer has to be the center of our life together; and we have to explore its deeper dimensions: silence and listening for God.
      4.    Studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life. 
            Neither is this something relegated solely to the professionals.  Each member should be in daily contact with the Word of God by reading Scripture and other books, and in conversation with other disciples. 
      5.    Supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents. 
            That’s time, money, and (not “or”) talents.  As a symbolic statement we disciples should be giving at least as much of our money, time, and talent as we give to various kinds of entertainment.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Discipleship is not a hobby we do in our spare time.
      6.    Demonstrating a new quality of life in and through the church. 
            The gathering of disciples is intended to function as a training center (a Japanese word is dojo) for discipleship, where we encounter Jesus’ life and teachings, and explore ways of more effectively reflecting and expressing the good news in our lives.
      7.    Responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others. 
            Someone once said that Christian faith is other people, meaning that serving people in need is almost identical to discipleship.  Check out Jesus’ famous words on the subject in Matthew 25:31-46.
      8.    Living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life. 
            “Responsibly” means in response to the demands of Jesus in imitation of his life of healing, empowerment, blessing, peace, and goodness.
9.    Working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment.
            Discipleship is not just something we do as individuals, or even simply in community.  It also extends to witnessing to larger political and economic systems in the world.  Helping individuals is important; changing systems that oppress people on a large, even global, scale is also fundamental to discipleship.  This is particularly the case for disciples who are blessed to live in a democracy where the people have a voice in civil decisions.  Our voices and choices, right down to what we buy and how we manage our work and home lives, make a difference in how the world works.
      10. Participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.
            The Presbyterian church is not a monarchy or oligarchy; we do not assign power exclusively to one person or class of people, not even presbyters.  Every member’s voice is valued and required for the gathering to move faithfully forward.  God calls us through the community to serve in leadership.  This cannot be left to a small group of perennial volunteers.
      11. Reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful. 
            It is a continual task of discipleship to be improving and deepening our trust of the Lord Jesus.  We are never finished in this mortal existence.  We are often called to let go of old ways that may have become ineffective, and take on new modes of discipleship that better express the good news in a new and different time and place.
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