Growing Churches Know…, Easter 5 (A) – 2002
April 28, 2002
Growing churches know that people respond best to clearly defined terms of membership. When people come to a church family they want to know what it takes to be a member. What are the standards? What is expected of members?
In American culture we have a hard time separating the church’s boundaries from those of the culture. We try to make our church at least somewhat attractive socially, and sometimes we offer programs that are better offered by non-church groups. The church is seldom the social center of the community as it once was. Now people who are non-members frequently describe the church as something “nice” but irrelevant.
In the Letter to Peter, the writer addresses the character of members: chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation. The qualities are not rewards for what people have done, but as members of God’s household they have a new status.
So, why not be clearer about membership? Why are we afraid to clarify the boundaries of the church and the Christian life? Are we so uncertain of our identity that we are fearful of making it clear?
One large mainline church has defined membership standards that include (1) attending worship every weekend unless you are ill or out of town — and if out of town you are urged to attend services locally; (2) participation in at least one activity each year aimed at helping you grow in your faith apart from worship attendance; (3) giving of your time in Christian service through the ministry of the church; and (4) giving financially in proportion to your income with the goal of tithing. (Source: Leading Beyond the Walls by Adam Hamilton, Abingdon Press, 2002).
The church that adopted these “membership” qualifications has grown from a church of 200 to over 8,000 members. While there are other reasons for this growth the author attributes one of them to the clarifying of membership.
In the Gospel passage Jesus talks of a place, a home with many rooms, and then moves on to talk about his important and exclusive work of salvation: No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). This is a passage that gives many modern Christians discomfort. We want to be seen as accepting of other faiths, so Jesus’ words sound to some terribly exclusive if not arrogant. But it is Scripture — and it has great merit.
The important theme for those of us who claim the Christian faith community is that this is our identity. It is our unique identity. We’re not clear to other people if we simply say something like, “We’re like the other great religions in many ways, we just believe in Jesus!” A statement like this confuses the questioner and it makes Christianity look like an ill-defined and ambiguous cause.
But the words spoken by Jesus in John’s Gospel gave identity to an early community of Christians struggling to separate themselves from a pagan culture. This community had a unique relationship with Jesus. They understood that prayer in his name was effective, and they trusted their lives to that faith. Can we dare to do that without apology?
This season of Easter is the time when the church rejoices in its powerful experience of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe this was a unique experience in history that transformed the lives of countless people and changed the course of the world’s history. The Easter season is the time we recall the work of the early church (recorded in the book of Acts) where through persuasion, testimony, and miracle the Apostles went out into the world and as a result of their witness called many people to a new life in Christ.
How can our own experience of transformation be as powerful in its witness to others? First, it has to be powerful for us. We are called once again to see ourselves in the Letter to Peter as “living stones,” the material for building a spiritual house out of many diverse parts, witnessing to the unity of the Christian life. Second, we have to be clearer about what it means to be a member of that household. Like any hospitable family, we welcome visitors and guests. But if you want to stay, here is what living here looks like. Finally, we need to engage the Gospel on a regular basis as a faith community outside of the Sunday experience. We need to ask repeatedly, “What is the Scripture saying to us?” “What is God calling us to do?” These are the questions that will lead us to a new place where the relationship with Jesus is renewed.
We do this at the same time we are trying to get to know our neighbors, the people among whom God has placed us. We need to know their needs and then determine to meet them. That is when bridges are built, relationships are formed, and people are drawn to the faith community to know Jesus, the Risen one: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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