“Therefore every scribe wo has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13:52
“What do I have to do to become a member?”
We live in a world in which “membership” can be attached to a wide variety of expectations. We, as the Church, have not always been clear how “church membership” is fundamentally different from other kinds of memberships. “Church membership” used to be a measure of a church’s health and vitality, but that is no longer true today. American churches are losing members in droves, many of whom had already physically and emotionally disconnected from the church years before. While the gospel message is still very relevant for our world today, the way in which we share it and live it must change!
The model of discipleship is an ancient one – an old treasure – that we need to bring out again, in order to bring vital health to today’s American churches. Simply put, it starts with the foundational understanding that the
mission of the church is to ”Go…and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19). The core beliefs of Christianity turn us outwards to the world; the membership model, as it is practiced in most American churches, turns us inwards to ourselves.
Lutheran pastor, Michael Foss, notes some other differences: “Membership is about getting; discipleship is about giving. Membership is about dues; disci-pleship is about stewardship. Membership is about belonging to a select group with its privileges; discipleship is about changing and shaping lives by the grace of God. The move from membership to discipleship is not easy…” (page 21, Power Surge)
We are slowly shifting First UMC from a membership model to a
discipleship model. Some of the key program shifts are already in process; the next to follow is the way we invite people to become a member of the church. The expectations for members under a discipleship model are very different. How do you become a member? It starts with a shift in our mindset:
- Church membership is not a status, but a life-long journey that begins with baptism. In baptism, from infants to adults, God
receives us into God’s universal Church family. While those who are able to answer for themselves also profess their faith in
Jesus, the true work being done is by God, who receives us
unconditionally. In baptism, the congregation promises to “surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faith-ful in their service to others.” (page 35, UM Hymnal). For United Meth-odists, baptism is a whole family affair! The first step to joining a local church is baptism.
In our culture, to become a member of something means we have additional rights or benefits in an organization. To become a member is the goal – the final destination. But traditionally in the church, that is not the foundational understanding of membership. “Membership”
continues the process of growing in Christ in partnership with a
congregation. To become a member is to begin a covenant partnership in ministry. This is a servant partnership, not a benefits membership – a covenant with others to “faithfully participate in…the ministries (of the local congregation) by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness” (UM Hymnal, page 38, edited for 2008 General Conference changes).
- Before joining the church as a member, we ask that you “date” the
congregation first. Many of us would laugh at the notion of getting
married after only a couple of dates, yet to jump into a church
membership without knowing the congregation is just as risky. It’s all about relationship! We are making vows of partnership; it is a good idea that we come to know to whom we are giving ourselves! It is NOT about the pastor (although his or her leadership does make a difference). Ask yourself: “Is this a place where I can love and be loved? Is this a place where I can grow in Christ and in my faith? Are these the kind of people with whom I can roll up my sleeves and work closely?” It takes time to get to know a congregation. Worship regularly with us for a while.
- Get involved with a small group or ministry, so that you get to know a few people well. Servants give themselves away. Be sure that this is a congregation in which you can do that. Healthy congregations care for each other’s well-being.
- Before considering membership, participate in a Connections Class. In fact, attending a Connections Class is the first step for membership, but does not obligate you to become a member. The purpose of the
Connections Class is to orient you to First UMC, so that you can
participate and “date” us. It is designed for people who are new to First UMC, but those who have been members for a while are also welcome – things are constantly changing. What statistics show is that those who become members of a church tend to maintain the same activity level at the point that they became members. Those who begin participating and THEN become members stay more active and engaged than those who simply transfer their membership.
- Three months or more after you have attended a Connections class, you will be invited to consider becoming a member of First UMC. The Membership Class is by invitation, and is designed to review the
expectations of membership at First UMC. We want you to be able to take the vows of membership with integrity.
- If after these steps, you believe you are ready to become a partner with First UMC, then welcome! Membership is a continuing of the journey we begin at baptism. Membership in any local church has many rich rewards as we continue to serve Christ in partnership with brothers and sisters. As we do God’s work, we are God’s work; as we are God’s work, we do God’s work!
Yours for the journey,