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 4 …
In part 3 we looked at the barrier that formal church membership, as we’ve been doing it, can present to people from our UK culture.
We finished with a question:
Is there a way forward that can work?
As a team we have spent hours on this. We have spent days and weeks on it actually. We’ve worked with wiser people than us to consider both the theology and the implications of many possible changes that could potentially be made.
In the end, as a team, we have arrived at a plan we are all excited about, united behind and confident in. We are not claiming that this plan is infallible, or that it’s the right solution for any other church. We are not criticising anyone who takes a different view from us. But this is what we are doing at Welcome Church, and it’s rooted in the journey we are on as a church, looking at our purpose, our identity and our culture. Anyone is free to copy what we do, but they do so at their own peril!
We have a plan that we believe will enable us to move forward, and help make us fit to reach out to Woking in 2019, and it’s built around two things: Belong, Believe, Become and Matthew 28v19-20. It may well be that we will make adjustments to this plan in the months ahead if we find that some aspects of it are not working how we anticipate they will. And any mistakes we make are entirely our own.
Ultimately, it’s all about discipleship
To move forward we are thinking in terms of discipleship and maturity, and not about being ‘in’ or ‘out’. Jesus didn’t call us to make church members, he called us to make disciples, and we need to take that call seriously.
In Matthew 28 v19-20 Jesus gave the church a mandate:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you …”
We have an ongoing mandate to make disciples of Jesus from people of all nations. That’s a huge calling!
Recently I visited a different church, and in the ‘notices’ they said this:
“Please come to our church membership course. We would love you to become a Church Member here, and once you join us, we can then start to disciple you”
I absolutely understand what they were saying, and maybe they didn’t mean it quite like they said it … but it’s not what we are saying at Welcome Church now, and it’s also not in line with how we would see the Great Commission.
We need to be a disciple making church!
To do this we need to do much more than just disciple Christians who we think have ‘made the grade’, and have been allowed to join a membership list. Instead we need to be making disciples out of all the different types of people who make up our messed up UK culture, just as Jesus did with the people from his own culture. This discipleship can start well before people come to know Jesus, as someone else said to me recently, “I’m now trying to disciple my next door neighbour”.
As a church we want to disciple anyone God puts within our sphere of influence. If you’re not yet a Christian, “Discipleship 101” is for you to find out about who Jesus is and what He’s done for you, and we would love to help you with that … just ask us.
While we’re on this point, look at the order of the Bible verse again: (1) make disciples … who will (2) go on to get baptised … and after that will (3) learn to obey Jesus. That order seems to me to have something of ‘Belong‘ … ‘Believe’ … ‘Become’ about it. In fact, Jesus’ disciples certainly came to faith via those three steps … they belonged with him for a long time before they believed in who he was, and they really only became who they were meant to be after he had left them.
So with discipleship as our priority, we are making TWO BIG CHANGES to help us move forward together to reach this town with the good news of Jesus:
1. We are going to stop talking about “membership”, and talk instead about “belonging”
That’s the first change. It means that we are no longer going to be running a membership day, or welcoming people into membership. Membership is no longer the goal for new people. We are going to stop thinking and speaking in terms of ‘in’ or ‘out’; instead we’re going to focus on helping all sorts of people to Belong.
We’re not saying that we are getting rid of people’s existing membership; if you’ve been a member with us for 5 years or 50 years, you still belong. This is still your church. You belong as much as you ever have, but we are reframing the concept of membership. We are going to talk instead about “belonging” … and we want lots of people to come and belong to our church; to choose to say, “Welcome Church is my church”
So we are saying that people who are still exploring faith can choose to belong; they can choose to say that Welcome Church is their church, whilst they learn to follow Jesus. They can belong to our community before believing, and they can belong to it after believing. They can belong to it while they are still exploring the Christian faith just as much as after they come to faith.
The emphasis is on moving from membership as the goal, to maturity in Christ as the goal, whatever the starting point.
To be frank, we wouldn’t want to say to someone who is not yet a Christian, “You’re a church member”. Language matters, and that could be unhelpful and confusing language.
But … we feel perfectly free to say to someone who is not yet a Christian that they belong to our church community – that our church is their church – while they are still exploring faith. Our hope and our belief (and our growing experience) is that they will go on to find a personal faith in Jesus and be born again … at which point they will be, by definition, members of Christ’s worldwide body, his church (see 1 Cor 12v27 …)
Over time we will disciple people. We will encourage them to be baptised, we will pray for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit. As people learn to live for Jesus part of their calling includes being an active part of a local church. These are all steps they can take while they belong to our community, not in order to belong to it.
An inviting garden or an imposing fortress?
We want our church to be more and more like an inviting garden, where people can come in and explore and taste the fruit. They can sit on the bench, enjoy the smell of the flowers, meet the gardeners (we do need gardeners), ask questions and see what’s going on. They can find a safe place to grow. In time we want them to meet the ‘Head Gardener’, come to faith in him, and learn to be gardeners themselves.
We want our church to be less and less like an imposing fortress, where we have sentries at the door who check your credentials to see if you’re allowed to proceed any further and who turn you away if you don’t comply.
So that’s the first change. We are going to stop talking about membership and talk instead about belonging. This is a culture change that will affect our language, our way of thinking and our practice as a church. It will also affect how we view people and how we treat them.
The second change we are making is this:
2. We are launching a new discipleship track built around Belong, Believe, Become
This discipleship track is about helping people learn to follow Jesus, taking them from whatever their starting point is and helping them to grow towards maturity.
How will that work? I’ll tell you in my next blog