“What if the church is not about attracting people into a building but living as God’s people in the public space of their own community and neighborhood?”
“The church is not simply a gathering of well-meaning individuals who have entered into a social contract to meet their privately defined self-interests. It is, instead, an intentional and disciplined community witnessing to the power and the presence of God’s reign.”
I’ve been in the church all my life. I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist Church. I was a 14 year old youth when we became The United Methodist Church. For much of my adult life I’ve felt an uneasiness about the character of the local church. This dis-ease has intensified by theological education, 10 years of pastoral experience and 8 years working at a general agency.
I say dis-ease because my experience of much of local church life and ministry is that of a place where people come as consumers of religious goods and services. Programs are equated with discipleship. In fact, in most congregations discipleship is little more than a program. It is one option among many for those who want to try it out. When discipleship is an option rather than an expectation of membership the church can no longer be the church, it becomes another social organization; albeit with a religious veneer.
I’ve recently read some books that give me hope for the church. The books are reassuring to me because they are a tangible sign that many others have had a similar experience and dis-ease with the contemporary North American church. The quotes at the top of this article are from two of the books: Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, edited by Darrell Guder and The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World by Alan J. Roxburgh & Fred Romanuk. Others are Transforming Mission by David Bosch and The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. All these books describe a Biblical vision for the church. They remind me that the purpose of the church is not to serve me and my needs. Rather, the purpose of the church is to be a sign-community for the coming reign of God. The church is intended to be a disciplined community of servants witnessing to and working alongside Jesus Christ in the world; preparing the world for the coming reign of God. The church’s task is to order its life so that it participates in Christ work in, with, and for the world.
All these books also make clear that God does not need the church. God’s reign will come on earth as it is in heaven, with or without the church. Certainly, God’s desire is for the church to be a channel of grace for the world; a sign that reveals and points the way to God’s coming reign. God wants the world to get a glimpse of the kingdom through the life and witness of the church. And, in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, God has given the church all it needs to become all God intended it to be.
John and Charles Wesley were missional leaders of a missional movement. They knew that the church was to be salt and light for the world. The Methodist mission was to help the church to become more fully what God created it to be. They witnessed to Jesus Christ in the world and followed his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If the church I know today is ever to make the shift from voluntary society to missional community of Jesus Christ it must first acknowledge that we live in a post-Christian culture. Christendom is dead. We need to stop pretending that it is not. One way to make this shift is to take membership seriously. We need to claim the church membership described in the whole Baptismal Covenant. When people offer themselves for membership in the local congregation we must stop simply asking them to be loyal to the UMC and to support it through their prayers, presence, gifts and service. We need to invite them into the whole of the Baptismal Covenant. We do them nor the church any favors when we let them believe that church membership begins with them. When we invite them into the Baptismal Covenant we tell them that church membership begins with God. They first declare their loyalty to God, along with the entire congregation. And God wants the whole person, not just their prayers, presence, gifts and service. Church membership is about the whole person: heart, soul, mind, and strength. It is also a call to obedience and service, to self-denial, “cross-bearing” and following where Jesus Christ leads.