I got to teach confirmation class yesterday. During the class I said, “At the end of these classes you are going to make a choice about whether or not you want to become a member of the church. Nobody is going to force you. It’s going to be your choice.
“And let me tell you, if you don’t have any intentions to do the stuff that church does, you probably shouldn’t join. That’s how seriously I take church; that’s how important it is to me.
“If you aren’t going to worship every week, be active in a small group, give proportionately, serve those in need, and invite others, then you might think about waiting until you’re ready to do that before becoming a member of the church.”
Why would I encourage people to join a church?
Honestly … I wouldn’t.
The truth is, I encourage people to follow Jesus, and if joining a church is the best way for them to do that, brilliant. I’ve heard plenty of people say, “I don’t need to be in a church to follow Jesus.” Who am I to argue? I wouldn’t dare limit the capacity of God to work outside of the parameters of church membership.
There are only two reasons to become a member of a church: support and accountability. Both of these functions are focused on the church’s mission - helping people become disciples of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake.
I do not find it easy to be a disciple of Jesus Christ by myself. The church is a group of people whose mission is (in part) to help me in my discipleship. Their purpose for existing is to help people (like me) follow Jesus. That’s a staggering thought.
And it’s reciprocal. At the same time my membership means that I’ve promised to help others in their discipleship, as well. That means we support one another and hold one another accountable to our task - making the world a better place, a place that looks a lot more like God wants it to.
If you need neither support nor accountability in your discipleship, don’t join a church.
I’m serious. If you and God are just fine without being a part of a church, don’t join one.
And if you are not going to help people become disciples changing the world for God, then don’t join.
And if you are not going to accept the help being offered you in your own discipleship, don’t join.
Said another way: if you are not going to do the stuff that churches do, you maybe shouldn’t join one.
The church exists because the mission exists, and all the church does ought to be geared toward that mission. Every activity should be aligned with supporting discipleship.
And what does that support look like? Nothing revolutionary here, plenty of books written on the topic, plenty of bishops preaching to congregations on the subject - it looks like
- worship together every week,
- being a part of a small group for growth and fellowship,
- giving proportionately of your income,
- serving others by helping people who need help, and
- creating a culture of invitation and hospitality.
These practices are a congregation’s offer of discipleship support and accountability to people. If you’re not going to accept that offer, you probably shouldn’t join a church.
“But Andy, I don’t do that stuff, and God and I are doing fine. Why you gotta be a hater?”
Again, let me assure you that I have no desire to limit what God is capable of doing outside of the church. I intend no judgment one way or the other; church membership is not “good” or “bad.” It is simply “helpful,” for me and for many others, in providing support and accountability for Christian discipleship.
At the same time, I cannot call a pattern of life Christian discipleship if it really isn’t. If it quacks like a duck, it probably isn’t a toothbrush. In order to clarify what I mean when I say Christian discipleship, let me make five distinctions.
First, I’d make a distinction between weekly worship and what I’d call “occasional” worship: once a month, once every six weeks, once and a while. It seems that we often try to fit worship into our schedules, rather than ordering our entire week around worship. Whether its sports, work, or a weekend at the lake, worship just slips down the priority list and we tend to become occasional worshipers rather than weekly.
There is a clear distinction between intentional small group participation and the frenetic activity and hyper-scheduled lives we tend to lead. Participation in a small group is where the deepest growth in discipleship happens, specifically with regard to two practices: faith formation and fellowship with others. But in order to grow deeply, we have to slow down, create time and space for the Spirit to move, and truly be present with a regular small group. When we are rushing from there to here and back again, there’s no chance to experience that level of growth.
When it comes to our generosity, there’s a big difference between giving “proportionately” and giving “conveniently.” Proportionate giving is sharing a percentage of one’s income with the church each pay period, with the Biblical 10% tithe as the goal. On the other hand, giving “conveniently” looks like dropping a bill or check (with a random amount always ending in five or zero) in the plate on those occasional worship Sundays. With electronic giving options, these days it’s easier than ever to give proportionately. (And we could have a whole discussion about whether that’s a good thing or not!)
There’s a distinction to be made between serving “out there” in the community and serving one’s self. It’s as clear as the distinction between selfless and selfish. I see a lot of the church serving only the church, or the family, or the self. Not that there’s anything wrong with that inherently, but the kind of service Christ calls for is clearly “out there,” in the community, where it is risky and uncertain and you might get hurt. Christian service ought to make the world a better place for God’s sake, or said another way, contribute to the construction of the reign of God on earth.
Finally, we need to make a distinction between a culture of invitation and a culture of comfort. A culture of comfort focuses inwardly and we tend to be withdrawn, awkward with, or even hostile to strangers. Christian discipleship requires a culture of invitation, in which the church is out and about in the community, involved with groups and activities that allow us to make friends with people who are not a part of a church. A culture of invitation does not have proselytizing the heck out of people as its goal, but rather the goal is just to become friends with people. Period. God will take care of the rest.
(To be continued. The working title for part 2 of this post = “Then Why Bother?”)