One of the biggest changes we’ve made at Welcome Church is our approach to church membership, or what we now call belonging. This week I will be blogging each day to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. To understand it fully, please start at Part 1 rather than jumping in half way through. This blog is Part 1 …
Belong, Believe, Become
Over the last year we’ve talked a lot about our church culture and the impact it can have on how we reach out with the good news of Jesus. By now you may be very familiar with the words: Belong, Believe, Become (after all, we did preach a whole series on it – click here for details!)
Here is the background to these three powerful words:
As churches we want people to do three things:
- Believe in Jesus – to be born again
- Belong to a local church – to be an active part of God’s family
- Become – to be all God has called them to be (sometimes people say ‘Behave’ rather than ‘Become’)
The order that we put these three things in matters immensely; it has a huge impact on how we do things as a church!
Looking back, I can see that the church I grew up in ordered them like this:
- Behave (and it was behave, not become)
So, if you were the right sort of person you got invited. Over time you might hear about Jesus and, if you then came to faith and got baptised, and your life was at a good enough standard, you might be allowed to belong as a church member – we even got to vote on whether you were allowed to join. Belonging was defined by a formal membership list.
Then I found a Newfrontiers church, and we ordered it more like this:
- Behave/Become (it was a mix of the two)
So we reached out and invited anyone and everyone, and if you came to faith we would begin to disciple you. If you then got baptised and sorted your life out to an acceptable standard of Christian living (whatever we perceive that to be!) you were allowed to become a member. Again, belonging was defined as membership.
This approach has been my default position for as long as I have been leading churches … until now.
In the past I sometimes used the phrase, “Membership before ministry” (Perhaps I just like alliteration). But if you wanted to do something in church, whether it was lead worship or put out a chair, you almost always had to be a member first because we wanted people who would “do things for the glory of God”.
This worked okay most of the time, and in fact it even encouraged some people towards baptism; they wanted to belong and get involved so they took this step. And as I look back now I question both the phrase and the motivation it gave people.
Is it right to get baptised with “getting involved in serving” as the main motivation? Is that Biblical?
UK culture has changed a lot in recent years
As UK culture changed, this approach began to work less and less effectively. At my previous church we changed from having a long membership course over several evenings to having a one day course on a Saturday. Then we reduced it to half a day.
We did that because many new people went from being keen to join, to actually seeing membership as irrelevant, unhelpful, unnecessary and even exclusive. What a change! And dropping the length of the course didn’t help to motivate people.
So people would start to follow Jesus, get baptised, love the church and make friends, but the question of membership got harder and harder. It was like it simply “did not compute”.
What should we do with the many Christians who were clearly part of us but had not officially joined … and who were often more committed than others who had officially joined but almost never attended?
I was very resistant to changing anything, but the reality was it wasn’t working like it used to. And asking around this was and is a growing issue for a lot of churches.
I personally believe the reason is down to cultural issues: UK culture has changed, the questions people are asking about life have changed, the felt needs of people have changed, the views of people towards the church have changed.
The gospel hasn’t changed, but the culture we live in has changed, so how we reach out needs to change as well – or we run a huge risk.
Climbing a mountain
It was during my Sabbatical break, while I was climbing Ben Nevis, that God spoke to me about this issue.
At the top of Ben Nevis are the ruins of an old hotel.It was once a thriving business, but it’s now a ruin. People still climb the mountains and people still use hotels – but this business died. And as I stood there I believe God spoke to me:
“If you don’t change the culture within your church, you could go the same way as these ruins”
That brought me up short and set me on a journey towards a different way of thinking about and ordering these words, so we now order them like this: Belong, Believe, Become.
First if all, we want to invite people, Christians and not yet Christians alike, to choose to belong with us; to find a family and a place of acceptance within our church community. Our message is, “Come as you are”.
We don’t want to be forcing life change onto people who don’t have a personal faith in Jesus (or onto those who do for that matter!) and we’re not looking to correct the externals in someone’s life so that God will somehow accept them and we can accept them too; that’s not the gospel.
Don’t forget, we preached a whole series on this, so do listen to that again
Secondly, we want people to believe in Jesus; to find a personal faith in him and be born again. Once people find a place to belong, we are able to model the love and the life of Jesus to them; we can tell them more about him; we can help them understand more about what he did for them; we can help them know both how lost and how loved they are.
We want to see people genuinely and powerfully born again, which of course leads on to life transformation, and things like baptism in water and the Holy Spirit.
From that place of faith and new life, we want to help people to become who God created them to be. Once people come to faith in Jesus, they change; once they have a relationship with God, the Holy Spirit brings about transformation.
“Come as you are” … but once you encounter Jesus you won’t stay as you are.
When God is at work in someone they change; inside and out. Sometimes people even look different once they get saved!
And we have a huge part to play in this too; our discipleship of people is crucial.
A year of change
Over the last year lots of Welcome Church people have spoken to me about how their understanding has changed, their attitudes have changed, their expectations have changed and the way they view people has changed. This is good news, and I have changed in these areas as well.
We are becoming Welcome Church in nature as well as in name, and we are seeing a lot more people who are not yet Christians attending our meetings and becoming part of us in various ways – that’s a good part of how we’re now growing.
But what about membership?
Well … I’ll come to that in the following blog posts.