Suffering a huge loss

As a church we suffered a terribly sad loss this week: the sudden and unexpected death of Lindy Zungu, a loving wife to Dunmore, and a mother of two small children. She was still in her early 30’s.

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Lindy grew rapidly ill last Wednesday and was airlifted to St Georges Hospital. Sadly she was declared ‘medically’ dead on Thursday afternoon, her heart and lungs sustained only by a machine.

As a church many of us prayed for the family and we also prayed for a miracle. We were led in that so well on Sunday morning by Meg at the first meeting and by Eugene at the second. Sadly it was not to be.

On Monday morning Dean and I were with the family – several of whom belong to Welcome Church – as the artificial support to life was withdrawn. It was a privilege to stand with them all in these devastating but dignified moments.

Saying goodbye

Gathered at her bedside we prayed for Lindy and we remembered the hope we have in Jesus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” John 11v25-26

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We also remembered the promises of God to us: resurrection, eternal life, a new body, new heavens and a new earth. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. We remembered that if our faith counts for anything it counts in moments like this. We grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope.

After the support to life was withdrawn, with many tears, family members took turns to tell Lindy that they loved her … that they would help care for the family … that they would miss her. And after about 15 minutes she quietly and peacefully left us for her new life beyond this world.

Keeping our promises

We are a large enough church that not everybody can know everybody else. We are large enough that there is probably always going to be someone who is experiencing sadness or grief. In fact, this is not the only family in our church to experience a sad loss this week. Despite these things, a loss like this is exceptional. Even those who may not have been close to the family will feel it.

We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn – and sometimes we do both on the same day.

Last year, on Mother’s Day, we prayed for this family as they gave thanks to God for their new daughter. This Mother’s Day Lindy won’t be with us.

During that meeting, as we gave thanks for the many new babies, I asked us all a question as a church. These were the words I used:

“So far as you are able, will you commit yourselves, over the years ahead to be a strength and an encouragement to these children and a support to their parents in this crucial, God given role of parenting?”

We were then all invited to stand as a sign of agreement to this promise. And everybody present stood. So now we have a job to do.

This family have been part of our church for several years now. They belong. Now is our chance to stand by our promises and to be a help and support both to Dunmore and the children for as long as we are needed.

 

Belonging – Part 7: Inclusion

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 7 … the final part! 

In previous blogs we’ve looked at our new approach to belonging and the thinking behind it, but there is one final question:

What if I’ve been a member for many years and I feel like I’ve lost something?

The first thing I would say is this:

Thank you for your ongoing faithfulness over the years!

You have helped to make our church what it is today and it’s our privilege to have you with us. We are so pleased that you are part of Welcome Church.

I’ve been here for less than 18 months myself. We’ve changed a lot of things in that time, so thank you for coming on this journey with us so faithfully. Your patience is wonderful to see and Jo and I feel blessed and supported; we feel that we are genuinely among friends.

Welcome Church is an awesome and exciting church to belong to. I love the way people pray and serve. I am amazed at how people give their time and commitment day after day. I am impressed by the godliness and the depth of knowledge that people have. There are so many good things being done both in the church and the wider community. This actually speaks volumes for my predecessors and the job that they did.

I feel privileged to be part of this church family, and we don’t want anyone to feel like they belong LESS after this change; we are all still completely INCLUDED.

With this in mind, here are five key things to remember as we make this change:

1. You do not belong any less than you did before

If you were on the membership list as we used to run it, you still belong today!

You are included. YOU ARE WELCOME CHURCH. Nothing is being taken away.

If you disappear off somewhere we will still chase you up to check that you are okay. If in time you are called elsewhere don’t just wander off – please let us send you well.

We are not terminating anything through this change, we are simply going to start talking about Belonging instead of about ‘in/out’ membership … and we’re going to open this Belonging invitation up to anyone who wants to come on a spiritual journey with us. Our discipleship track will help people from the very start of their spiritual journey, whether or not they understand what discipleship even means at that point.

If you are someone who has never become a church member, please come and belong with us at Welcome Church; we want to help you grow in your faith.

2. This is all about the call to make disciples

Remember, we are all called to help make mature followers of Jesus, who know God and are equipped to live for him in this world. This is all about that. 

Remember that Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations. Does your heart break for lost and broken people? We have a huge mission field in front of us.

Remember, “The nice Christians are already in the nice Christian churches” and the days of transfer growth are pretty much gone. God is sending us to reach precious lost people, even out of the messiest and darkest places. Let’s not allow a past church culture to prevent us from building a church today that will reach the lost people all around us. Let’s remove everything that hinders.

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3. We all have a part to play

We all need help and encouragement to grow in spiritual maturity. If you are a more mature believer perhaps you could use the steps we’ve talked about as a framework to help you discern where someone is in terms of their spiritual growth. You could get alongside them and help them to grow … and you may find that they have some things to teach you as well.

For this to work best, we all need to play our part and take our responsibility to help one another. Our Life Group leaders have a particularly important role here, but we all have a part to play. Let’s be a disciple making, leader producing church!

4. If this doesn’t work properly we will adjust it

I think this speaks for itself. We are pioneering something here and we will learn some lessons along the way. Perhaps some others may follow us in time, but right now we are doing this as pioneers, so we will adjust as necessary as we go along.

Let’s not be scared to try something new that we believe will make us more effective to reach new people for Jesus. Similarly, let’s also not be too stubborn to make adjustments as we go!

5. Please pray for the church and for the leadership

Prayer is powerful! Your leaders need and value your prayers and your encouragement. Pray that we would all have wisdom and discernment. Pray that we would walk in grace.

Thank you for your love and care. You are Welcome Church. We are Welcome Church. Let’s go forward in prayerful unity and loving care.

I’ll finish with a verse from the Bible.

Philippians 4v4-7:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

 

Belonging – Part 6: Exclusion

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 6 …

In part 5 we looked at the details of our new discipleship track. We finished with a question:

Aren’t there certain people who shouldn’t be allowed to belong to our church? In fact, aren’t we “compromising the gospel” and “going soft on sin”?!?

I’m not surprised when these sorts of questions come up, and I think they are mainly rooted in two things:

  1. A genuine concern that we might “compromise truth and not truly challenge people on issues of sin and holiness” ... issues which really do matter
  2. The Pharisee that is hidden inside us all!

Let’s consider them in reverse order, starting with our inner Pharisee.

We might bristle at the idea that we could ever be like the Pharisees, but our hearts can deceive us! It’s very easy to end up becoming Pharisaical towards the very people that Jesus wants to draw to himself. It’s far too easy to turn Christian faith, which is really about a relationship with God, into a programme of sin avoidance … and then to put that onto other people.

So, is there anything of the Pharisee in us? Well, let’s consider a question:

What were the Pharisees like?

The first thing to say is this: the Pharisees were not all bad. If we don’t understand this we run the risk of forgetting that they were real people who believed that they were doing the right thing and were serving God. They were normal people, like you and I. They thought and reasoned like we do. So why were Jesus and the Pharisees constantly at odds with one another?

Some things to understand about the Pharisees:

1. They loved the Bible (though they only had the Old Testament part)

2. They stood for moral values (in a decaying culture)

3. They were evangelistic (“travelling over land and sea to win a single convert”)

Loving the Bible … concerned about moral decay in society … evangelistic for their faith. I don’t know about you, but when I read that list it reminds me of something …

There is one more thing we need to know about the Pharisees though:

4. There was no love in their hearts for broken and sinful people

The Pharisees thought that they were the good people. They thought that they were God’s people. They made sure that they stood apart from any people who they viewed to be sinful, worrying that it might spoil their holiness. Yet for all their passion for God, Jesus sums them up with this phrase:

“You hypocrites! You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.” (Matthew 23v13)

There is a hard truth here:

It’s possible for Christians to think they are faithfully doing God’s work, and yet to completely misunderstand Jesus’ mission to reach lost and broken people.

Jesus told them that he had come to seek and save the lost, that it was the sick who required a doctor and that they should go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Jesus’ sternest rebukes were spoken against the Pharisees.

Compromising the gospel

Not long ago I was asked a question which was phrased something like this:

“Are you the sort of preacher who will stand up for truth and preach against sin, or are you one of these modern preachers who tells people that God loves them?”

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Preach it brother!

And there is the nub of the issue. In this person’s mind I was either faithful to truth, which meant preaching condemnation against ‘those awful sinners’ – or I was in sinful compromise.

But the truth is that God loves people. He really does. He loves lost, broken and damaged people. He even loves sinful people … which is a good job really when you think about it.

Shockingly God doesn’t withhold his love for sinful people until they repent; Jesus went to the cross for sinful people.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3v16-17)

So to preach a message of condemnation is to compromise the gospel. To fail to tell people that God loves them is to compromise the gospel. In fact gospel means ‘good news’, so should we perhaps consider that if our message doesn’t sound like good news to sinful people, we might be compromising the gospel?

The gospel is not a call for us to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and make ourselves good enough to earn God’s love. “God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5v8).

But what about the other concern people may have, that we might abandon truth and not really challenge people on issues of sin and holiness?

Does a culture of Belonging mean we don’t challenge anything?

Not at all. Discipleship is all about challenge and guidance. That’s a lifelong thing, and it comes out of relationship. God is making us into the image of his perfect son, Jesus. He’s working in us all the time, and as a church we have a huge part to play in people’s discipleship. Of course discipleship requires relationship, and it’s crucial that we understand this point.

I don’t need to have a relationship with you to condemn you or judge you, but I do need a relationship to disciple you.

So we are not going “soft on sin”, but we are going big on relationship, which is why belonging is vital as a first step. Without this we run the risk of turning people away from Jesus and shutting the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.

Without relationship we run the risk of what I would call compromising the gospel.

By the way, I loved Andrew Wilson’s recent blog which emphasises the need for us not to shy away from the difficult areas of Christian discipleship by simply being silent on certain issues. Here is a link to it. He is much cleverer than I am and this is well worth a read, as is all his stuff.

To encourage you:

  • Three Sundays ago we preached a gospel message, clearly highlighting people’s lost and broken state before God and our desperate need for forgiveness. Seven people responded, raising their hands to say they had prayed a prayer of repentance, asking Jesus for forgiveness and committing their life to him.
  • Last Sunday we preached about baptism as the first step of obedience for people who are “all in for Jesus”. We challenged people that if they were serious about their faith now, it was time to go public for Jesus. Fifteen people signed up to get baptised.

All of these people are already known to us as a church, and it’s great to see our new approach in action and God at work though it. All of these people already belong to our church, they are all growing in God from a place of relationship with our church, and all of them will have stuff in their life that God wants to free them from. So do you. So do I. Working out what it means to follow Jesus will take the rest of our lives, but we can work these things through whilst belonging.

But what about church discipline? What about excluding people? Didn’t Paul tell us to ‘expel the immoral brother’?

The first thing to say is that it deeply concerns me when someone’s passion for clarity on this issue outweighs their heart for lost and broken people. It really does. It should concern you too.

So if this question is top of your list and you haven’t shared your faith with anyone recently … say in the last month … or year … or ever … give that some thought. Who are you inviting to Alpha? What are the names of your top ten friends who are not yet Christians? How often do you pray for them? What’s your plan to reach them?

But of course, almost every organisation has to be able to say to people, “You can’t come here any more; please do not come back”, whether it’s the golf club, the fishing club, your local pub, the corner shop, your child’s school or a professional organisation. It’s crucial for the health of any organisation to recognise that some behaviours are likely to lead to our exclusion, or in church language ‘excommunication’. The Bible gives instructions on this, and we need to be Biblical.

But is this still possible with a Belong, Believe, Become approach?

Of course it is. We don’t need someone to be on a formal church membership list to be able to confront them for outrageous, divisive, unrepentant, destructive behaviours! Almost every church leader has to do this at some point along the way and it’s not easy. Someone will usually get upset and misunderstand what has been done and why, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do it. (Godly leadership takes courage!)

But let’s get this right and let’s act with love

In 1 Corinthians 5 we read about a man who has gone off with his father’s wife (his step mother we assume, but possibly his mother). Paul says that this type of sin is “not even tolerated amongst the pagans” – and that’s pretty much still true even today.

This was something so destructive that it was bringing God’s church into disrepute and hindering the advance of the gospel, so Paul told them to deal with it … firmly and lovingly. But why was this guy singled out?

You see, the bigger question for me about this issue is this:

What about the rest of the sin present in the church at Corinth?

Isn’t all sin an affront to God’s holiness? Why was this guy singled out for exclusion?

As we read the rest of 1 Corinthians we get a picture of the church, and the surprising thing to me is to find out who was included in it. To be honest it’s concerning. The church included:

  • People causing division and arguments
  • People who were getting drunk during communion
  • People who were eating all the shared food at their communal meals, causing the poor people to go hungry
  • People who were suing other people in the church
  • Men who were visiting prostitutes in the idol temples and paying them for sex
  • Women who were expressing their new freedom by dressing in ways that, in their culture, only prostitutes dressed
  • People who were refusing to have sexual relations with their spouse because they thought that celibacy made them more spiritual
  • People who were abusing spiritual gifts in worship
  • And a whole lot more
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An average Sunday at church in 1st Century Corinth … including the hat

Where were all these people?

They were included in the church.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that what they were doing didn’t matter; quite the opposite in fact. We’re aware of these issues precisely because they did matter. That’s why Paul wrote to the church about them.

Yet all these things were addressed in a context of relationship and belonging. 

Can we say the same? In recent church history I suspect that most churches would have excluded lots of the people on that list!

But what does Paul say about these issues? He reminds them of who they are in Christ. He appeals to their new nature as new creations in Jesus. He calls them to act towards one another in love. He calls them back to holiness. He warns them about the very serious consequences of what they are doing … in fact he is very blunt with them.

But then Paul had the relationship with them that enabled him to do that.

You see, Paul loved that church deeply; read the letter and you can see for yourself. He was so grateful to God for this messy church made up of people who Jesus had saved and who He loved deeply.  This was discipleship in action. This was discipleship of those who belonged, who had come out of a very messy and broken culture, who might take years to learn what it meant to follow Jesus … and who are just like the people God is calling us to reach in the UK today.

But doesn’t this mean we are in danger of having “sin in the camp”? (As I have been asked, albeit not by anyone in Welcome Church – see Joshua 7 for details!)

My answer? There is always sin in the camp! Praise God for his grace! So read Joshua 7, understand that God knows everything you think and everything you do – even the stuff no one else knows about – and then praise God for his grace and mercy in Jesus that covers our sin.

We must be careful before we start excluding the very people who Jesus is trying to reach.

If we want to be Biblical, let’s not be ‘trigger happy’.

Is it possible that 1 Corinthians has more to teach us about discipleship and inclusion than it does about discipline and exclusion?

Certainly it’s something to think about.

Living like Jesus

Ultimately, as a church, we are here to represent Jesus. That’s our calling. The Pharisees taught people a love of the law … but Jesus taught people the law of love, and this led to conflict between them.

The Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking religious rules. They accused him of associating with the wrong sort of people and of being “a friend of sinners”.

Jesus accused the Pharisees of being judgemental, hard-hearted hypocrites, who were lacking in love for people.

But which set of accusations would we get thrown at us today?

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The accusing finger strikes again

Is the church in our nation more likely to be accused of breaking religious rules and welcoming sinners, or are we more likely to be accused of being hard-hearted, judgemental hypocrites? In short:

Do people in the UK view the church as being more like Jesus, or more like the Pharisees?

How will we know when we are representing Jesus well? How will we know when we are living like he did? Perhaps one indicator would be that we start to get accused by religious people of the same things that Jesus was accused of by religious people …

One thing is for sure: this needs wisdom and discernment from God and we may not always get it right. Thank God for his grace and his promise that he will build his church.

So there it is. I’ve detailed our new approach to belonging in six posts.

But what if you feel like you’re losing out?

Maybe you’ve been a member for a long time. You made an effort to become a church member and you’ve been faithful to the church for many years. What would we say to you?

I will address this in my final ‘Belonging’ blog tomorrow …

 

Belonging – Part 5: Track

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 5 …

In part 4 we detailed our plan to move forward, and looked at how our new approach to belonging is built around two things: ‘Belong, Believe, Become’ and ‘The Great Commission’.

We highlighted two main changes:

  1. We are going to stop talking about membership and talk instead about Belonging (see the previous blog for details)

  2. We are launching a new discipleship track built around Belong, Believe, Become

So how does this new discipleship track work?

This is where we get really detailed and practical, and this is also very important; this is the stuff we are now doing together as a church.

There are five simple steps to our new discipleship track, so it’s shaped something like this (yes – I know this only shows four steps – that’s sort of deliberate):

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Step 1 is a Newcomers Lunch:

This is open to anyone who wants to attend. They could be a mature Christian who is new to our church, or someone exploring faith for the very first time. They may have come to us through Alpha, or have been coming along on Sundays or to a ministry. It’s open to anyone at all. They are invited to find out more about Welcome Church and we  promote this on Sundays and through all our ministries.

Our aims for the lunch are to help connect new people to the church, to tell them about the church and while they’re with us we invite them to “STEP ON”; to start a spiritual journey with us. Some choose to do that, at which point they have embarked on our discipleship track; the first step towards Jesus.

(For those who love nerdy details, this is the point where we can first add new people to our very helpful and GDPR compliant database and get permission to start e-mailing them and other exciting stuff like that)

Step 2 is called Belonging Together:

This is for anyone who wants to find out what it means to belong to Welcome Church.  The invitation is to come and find out what it means to belong, and anyone who wants to do that is invited.

It consists of one session, usually done in an evening, but during the day if there are people who need that. We talk about our vision and mission as a church, and encourage people to come and play a part in what we do. We invite people to STEP IN” to the church; to choose to say, “This church is my church”.

A person does not need to be a Christian to make this decision, they just need to make a meaningful decision to choose to belong, and to know that they have made that decision. Once that’s done people are free to get involved in lots of areas of serving in church life, and serving is a great way to build good friendships with other people.

(Nerd alert again: this is another great chance to update the database further)

Step 3 is called Believing Together:

This is for anyone who wants to find out more about following Jesus, as well as for any Christians who are new to us as a church. It’s designed for people who have made a recent commitment to Christ, or are on the edge of doing that, or who might have done it and are unsure, and also for anyone who wants to explore the foundations of the gospel again.

It runs over two sessions. The first session focuses on faith. We talk about who Jesus is, what the gospel is and the cost of following Jesus. We explain baptism as well, and encourage people to respond to Jesus and to be baptised as a believer.

The second session focuses on knowing God. We talk about knowing God as our Father and about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We also pray for baptism in The Holy Spirit.

The purpose of these two sessions is to invite people to STEP FORWARD” – not towards a membership list, since they already belong – but towards a relationship with Jesus.

Once people have made a commitment to Christ the serving opportunities available to them expand … since as a Christian church, some serving roles are obviously only appropriate for Christians to carry out. (Obviously! And people understand that when you tell them.)

Step 4 is called Becoming Together:

This is designed for committed Christians who want to grow in their faith. The invitation is to find out more about becoming all God has called you to be. (This is also open to anyone on the old “Church Membership” list. They can do the other steps, but probably don’t need to!)

There are three sessions. The first focuses on our identity: who we are in Christ, our personal calling and the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to help us live that out.

The second session focuses on the church: what the church is, being God’s family together, why the church matters, our values as a church, plus serving, giving and more.

Session three focuses on the Kingdom Of God: what the kingdom of God is, how we live a life of faith 24/7, how faith impacts our work, our family and our day to day life. It also touches on our call to the nations and to serve the poor.

This is an invitation to STEP UP” to become all God has called us to be. It can also open the door to leadership serving opportunities for people, so there is the one final step, if appropriate:

Step 5 is called Leading Together

This is specifically designed for those who feel called, or are being asked, to lead a ministry. That could be a Life Group, a children’s group, a ministry to the poor or any other leadership role. It focuses on what it means for us to partner in ministry together as a church family.

It’s one session that covers the requirements and responsibilities of leadership at Welcome Church, and it leads to the opportunity to STEP OUT” in a leadership role. It’s not shown as an extra step upwards on the diagram because leaders ought to be a step or two ahead of other people, but they are not necessarily more mature spiritually.

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Every step is taken in a context of Belonging

That’s the end of the basic discipleship track, but steps of growth continue for life.

Remember, the goal is not to become a church member, because we want people to belong to our community right from the start of the process; the goal is to help people come to know Jesus, and become mature in Christ. This discipleship track is underpinned by ‘Belonging’, not as a goal to achieve but as a foundation to build on. People can do all of this whilst belonging to our church community, not in order to belong to it.

In time we want each person to be able to help others to Belong, Believe and Become all that God has called them to be as well; we can each play a part in discipling one another.

In practice a mature Christian joining us from another church might take these steps in a few weeks. Someone completely new to faith might take a lot longer. Perhaps some people will take several years. We don’t mind. Sometimes there will be a discipleship issue that needs more time and attention, and maybe some extra help from a leader. What matters most is the trajectory someone is on, and not the rate of their progress or the challenges they face.

Ultimately this is all about the command of Jesus for his church to make disciples

It’s about leading people through to maturity and towards the obedience that comes from faith, and it’s about doing this in a way that removes barriers we may have inadvertently created in the past.

Are we losing the benefits of membership?

We believe that this approach will keep many of the benefits that our former approach to church membership had for the church. We can still be clear on who belongs to the church, since people will make a decision to belong. We will have opportunities along the way to encourage people towards faith and baptism, and to give guidance on discipleship issues. We will still be encouraging people towards ownership of our shared vision and mission together as a church. There is still ‘protection’ in terms of who can lead or serve in certain ministries or roles.

Finally, for those who are concerned (and I know there will be some) we can still exercise church discipline if we need to … and I guess this last point matters because, after all …

Aren’t there certain people who shouldn’t be allowed to belong to our church?

In fact, isn’t this whole approach simply “compromising the gospel and going soft on sin”?

More on this in the next blog

 

Belonging – Part 4: Plan

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.

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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.

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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

Belonging – Part 3: Problem

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 3 …

In part 2 we talked about where our approach to Church Membership originally came from, and the challenge it now presents in UK culture.

We ended up with a question:

Should we abandon the idea of membership?

When we look around at the churches near to us, and also at the results of some research we conducted more widely, almost all of the growing movements of churches in the UK, and most of the ‘big’ churches we spoke to (of which we are not yet one) no longer have a formal membership. Not all … but most. Our research also showed that many who do have it are now wrestling with this question.

So should we just stop it? Or is that throwing out the baby with the bath water?

To aid our thinking, let me present the challenge visually:

If you’re a Christian, baptised as a believer and living for Jesus and you come to a church like ours, you find out that there is a thing called Church Membership, and it’s a small step to take. No problem:

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How it is for a baptised Christian who is living for Jesus

If you come from a different church background it can be a bigger step.

Maybe you need to be baptised before you can join, but it’s a step you can take if you want to. Sometimes people don’t want to (“… but then they’re probably better off in another church if they don’t love Jesus properly like we do? Right???” NO!!! WRONG!!! )

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How it is for a Christian from a different church background

So we give people a bit of time, but ultimately they have to choose, and sometimes churches have pressured people unhelpfully.

If you come from a non-Christian background and try to join us, the step is even bigger. There may be some significant things to sort out before you can join, but if you have what some Christians might call “a respectable lifestyle”, you can manage it in the end … although it may take a while to get baptised and to adjust some of your behaviours and relationships, but maybe, in a year or two, you can climb the ladder and join.

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How it is for a new Christian from a “respectable” background.

Many have made this step … although I know it can take a long time, and I also know that some have not been able to make it. Some have sadly walked away. One person in our church’s recent history took seven years to climb that ‘ladder’. I’m amazed he stuck around so long. But what many Christians would think of as “a respectable lifestyle” is disappearing fast.

If you come from a non-Christian background now, it is increasingly likely that the step will look more like this: 

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How it is for the average new person today

There is a wall you can hardly begin to climb. There is so much that needs to change and be addressed before you’re ready for membership as we have had it, that you could be looking at years – and I mean years – of work. All the while knowing that you don’t yet belong. And if we hold back on discipleship until someone becomes a member, we are just making the problem worse.

Remember: our culture has pretty much rejected Christian morality.

People no longer have any pressure to live to a Biblical norm; in fact the opposite is true. Britain today is not a Christian country. Many churches are dying. And this change has come fast … certainly within my lifetime.

I believe that our culture is in a mess (see newspapers for details). I also believe that we need to care. Really we need to pray for revival, but whether God moves in that way or not, the answer is not for us to shout about Christian morality from the spiritual cliff tops, nor is it to have a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. Instead we need to love and care for the lost, and to let God break our hearts for this nation And we need to get closer to those we want to reach and allow them to get closer to us.

But we can so easily live in a Christian bubble, where all we know are our Christian friends. And we can live in our Christian bubble happily, while the rest of the world goes to hell. Many in the work place will know how different the world is now to how it used to be. Some Christian values that were once cultural norms, are now considered to be abhorrent and hateful. The Christian lifestyle is now abnormal! 

To quote a good friend of mine:

“The nice Christian families are already in the nice Christian churches”

We are no longer going to grow much by transfer growth. Those days are virtually gone. We need to reach into our messy world like never before and, if we are to do that, we need to address the barriers that people coming into the church from our modern UK culture will face.

So I believe we need to find a new approach to church membership that will help the broken people coming out of our broken culture, and not hinder them.

So what do we do? Is there a way forward that can work?

I believe there is, and I’ll talk about it in my future blogs

 

 

Belonging – Part 2: History

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 2 …

In part 1 we talked about the culture of Belong, Believe Become, which left us with a question:

What about Church Membership?

Membership has been a part of the life and culture of our church for years. Some have been members for longer than I’ve been alive.

Belong, Believe, Become has an impact on this. If belonging is open to all, do we no longer have membership? And if ‘belonging’ is no longer defined as membership, what are we saying? Are we saying that someone who is not yet a Christian is now able to be a church member? Do we have a defined membership anymore? This needs careful thought and first we need to consider:

Where does Church Membership come from?

The first thing to understand is where church membership as we’ve practised it comes from, and the answer surprised me. The first thing to say is that membership as churches like ours often define it doesn’t come from the Bible. The Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 12v27:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”

but to apply that to being added to a specific local church’s membership list is to misuse the meaning of the passage. The passage simply means that all Christians everywhere are a part of Jesus’ body on earth, as though we were his physical ‘members’ – meaning the arms, legs, feet, hands etc.

To avoid confusion, some modern translations phrase it like this:

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”

They’ve changed that word from ‘member’ to ‘part’ in order to remain true to the original text and avoid confusion!

But what else does the Bible say about this?

The Bible makes it clear that, from the earliest days of the church, there were clearly defined local churches. The people who belonged to them knew that they belonged to them and the church leaders knew who their “flock” was, and knew who they were responsible for.

And people could also be put out of a church fellowship too – the ultimate form of church discipline – so there must have been some sense of them first belonging. But there are many different ways to achieve those aims.

So where did our long standing approach originate from?

It’s no surprise that over the years many different ways of being church have been expressed. I would not claim for a moment to have insight into the practice of all types of church over 2000 years of worldwide history! No doubt someone somewhere will know far more than I do, and good for them.

But as a former Baptist Church (of 139 years standing no less) we have the joy of knowing exactly where what we do came from. We can trace it back very easily. The basis of church membership as we have always applied it started not with the Bible, but with a group of Christians called the Anabaptists, who were founded in the 1500’s in Europe. These people were our forerunners, and we can trace our history back to them

Anabaptists

The Anabaptists were a very zealous, faithful and radical group of Christians, who had rediscovered believer’s baptism: the baptism of believers, after conversion, by full immersion in water, after conversion.  In a culture where Christianity was pretty much the national sport, where almost everyone was christened as a baby (which, with genuine love and respect to our Anglican brothers and sisters, is not what the Bible means by Baptism) and where the state church held huge political power, they began to practice believer’s baptism, by immersion … and they suffered for it.

Some were martyred for their beliefs, including in this country. We burned people at the stake over this issue in the UK just 400 years ago. If you search for ‘Anabaptists’ on line, you will find this image comes up, showing persecution of this group by both Catholics and Protestants alike:

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The Anabaptists suffered for their faith at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants

The problem was, these people had broken with the state church. They were no longer under the authority of the Bishops, or of the Pope or the King as the head of the church. They believed in the priesthood of all believers, so they made many decisions by voting to discern God’s will together. And worst of all they were re-baptising people who had been christened as babies. Anabaptists means ‘again baptists’.

In the midst of this persecution they needed to protect themselves, because the members of their churches could vote to change their  church practice, their theology and their leadership. Also outsiders might spy on them and report them to the authorities.

So if you wanted to belong to an Anabaptist church, they wanted to know certain things about you first:

  1. That you were a Christian
  2. That your lifestyle matched up
  3. That you had been, or would be, baptised, after coming to faith in Jesus, by full immersion in water.  If not you could not join them, because this sort of Baptism defined them and they were suffering for it.

The other members then had a chance to approve of you … in case someone knew something about you that others didn’t

So to be a member you had to be a Christian, to prove your faith through life change, to have been baptised as a believer by full immersion, and to have been interviewed and approved of by the other members. And that helped protect the church from persecution. 

To quote a good friend of mine who is a top quality theologian and far more qualified than I shall ever be:

“The Anabaptists put this in place and no one has reviewed it since”

Although that type of persecution has ended for us in the UK, and although this is no longer a Christian nation where everyone is in the state church, the system of membership they began has remained largely unchanged.

It has been replicated in new churches of all sorts ever since, including ours, with perhaps one small change: eldership ‘approval’ replaced congregational ‘approval’ as we ‘rediscovered’ Biblical teaching on eldership, and congregational voting ceased.

Some real benefits

Of course, this sort of membership does bring some real benefits, such as:

  • A clarity about who is ‘in’ and who is not
  • A moment to really encourage baptism
  • A moment to challenge ‘lifestyle issues’
  • A route to good discipleship
  • A call to a deeper level of commitment
  • An ownership of a shared church vision
  • A protection in terms of who can lead or serve in certain ministries or roles

Sadly sometimes it’s also used (or misused) by leaders as a handy lever to motivate people to behave how they want them to … the ultimate threat being expulsion!

But in UK culture today it presents a growing challenge:

Increasingly this can make us seem closed. It can make us seem exclusive. It can make us seem heavy and controlling. It can make us seem like a cult. And it can prevent people from feeling that they are able to belong with us while they explore faith.

In fact many churches are finding that this is becoming an increasingly significant barrier to new people, and therefore an obstacle to people meeting Jesus through us.

So what are we to do? How do we respond to this without throwing out the baby with the bath water? Should we just abandon the idea of membership?

I will address this in my future blogs.

Belonging – Part 1: Culture

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:

  1. Believe in Jesus – to be born again
  2. Belong to a local church – to be an active part of God’s family
  3. 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:

  1. Behave (and it was behave, not become)
  2. Believe
  3. Belong

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:

  1. Believe
  2. Behave/Become (it was a mix of the two)
  3. Belong

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.

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Snow in late June … only in Scotland

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”

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Not sleeping here tonight!

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.

1. Belong

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

2. Believe

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.

3. Become

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.