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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gaining Members or Making Disciples?


     We have this idea that a successful church is one that is gaining members, and that the more members a church has or gains the more successful it is.  That is certainly the way we talk and act. 
     The Psalmist on the other hand writes, “Turn my heart to your decrees and not to selfish gain” (Psalm 119:36).  In Jesus’ ministry one thing he avoids is any hint that he is seeking, let alone compromising his teaching in order to attract, more members, or even disciples for that matter.  Several times he deliberately makes his ministry more demanding, difficult, and unattractive for people.  He often seems frustrated by the following he does have.  In a famous portion of John 6, he seems content to be abandoned by almost everyone but his original 12.
     One of the justifications often given for the church seeking to gain members is the Great Commission in Matthew 28.  The risen Lord instructs his apostles to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to obey his commandments.  But his commandments nowhere value the accumulation in itself of increasing numbers of members.  I have already made the point in another post that disciples are not the same as members.  So what does it mean to “make disciples” and how is that different from “gaining new members”? 
     Jesus makes disciples by calling people and teaching them.  We know what he tells his disciples/apostles to do.  Basically, they are to do the same kinds of things Jesus himself does: healing, casting out demons, building communities, preaching, and teaching.  Disciples are to do those specific things, and teach others to do them.  In this way they are to represent, even in some sense be, Christ in the world.  In this way they become members, in the sense Paul uses the term, of his Body.
     Most churches, when seeking members, do not act, think, or talk as if they are calling people to anything resembling discipleship, according to Jesus’ descriptions of it.  Beyond requiring a verbal affirmation of Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior, congregations today do not teach or expect, let alone require, people to become disciples of Jesus in any real way.  They do not teach, expect, or require members to actually do much of anything.  Even showing up at Sunday worship is apparently too much to ask.  (Churches tend to have far more members than regular attendees.) 
     Indeed, were a congregation to enact such requirements I am fairly certain that a presbytery would strenuously object on the basis of a shallow, out-of-context reading of G-1.0302:No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith.”  This would mean that we understand the profession of faith to be empty, meaningless, and unassociated with any action or behavior.  This is not the way the new Testament understands faith.     
     In G-1.0304, however, we see a list of 11 specific things members of congregations are supposed to be doing.  The list is not optional or merely suggested.  It simply assumes that these are things every member of a church is about.  A lot of these are responsibilities congregations have divested themselves of and assigned to professional clergy.  This practice of hiring someone else to be a disciple instead of you is foreign to the New Testament, to say the least.  In reality these behaviors are expected of all disciples of Jesus Christ.
     My point is that presbyteries should not be evaluating churches on the basis of membership numbers or growth.  Rather, congregational vitality is measured by the character and quality of discipleship exhibited by the participants in a church’s mission, as exemplified in G-1.0304, not to mention the explicit commandments and instructions of the Lord to his own disciples in the gospels.
     In other words, a presbytery has no business dissolving a church because it does not have “enough” members or money, when these are not categories that the Scriptures or the Constitution care about in the least.  At the same time, where discipleship is happening, and where members are fulfilling the demands of the 11 categories, why would a presbytery not feed such a congregation with needed resources?  Indeed, should not a presbytery actively encourage churches to make disciples rather than just gain members?
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