Membership has its privileges; at least that's what the old commercial said. The credit card company offers cash back to cardholders; the country club discounts rounds of golf for those paying dues; the coffee shop gives free beverages to loyal customers on their birthdays; and the gym lets members use all of the equipment as often as they like. The United Methodist Church, though, is a different kind of organization.
When performing at its best, the church focuses its attention and resources more on non-members than members. The mission statement of The United Methodist Church is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church ¶120). This reminds us that while we seek to make members, our ultimate purpose is for the benefit of the whole world.
Church membership, then, is not about privileges like assigned pews, having say in important church decisions, or getting to the front of the line at potluck suppers. Rather it is a call to participate as part of a fellowship of followers of Jesus Christ who seek to make the world more like the Kingdom of God.
The Rev. Wilfried Nausner, Superintendent of The United Methodist Church in Albania and Macedonia, expressed it this way, "The task of any particular church and its members is to form the body of Christ. But it is not our task to make good members… Nobody can love the church in general or the universal church. It has always to be our neighbor that comes first."
Our membership ritual, part of the Baptismal Covenant, reflects these values.
A commitment to Christ
Those desiring to become professing members of a United Methodist congregation respond to a series of questions. They are first asked to renounce wickedness, evil, and sin, and to accept the freedom and power of God to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. Then they are asked if they confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, and trust and serve him as their Lord. The next question asks each to promise to remain a faithful member of Christ's church, and to serve as his representative in the world. Then, together with the congregation, all profess the Christian faith as contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, based on the Apostles' Creed.
Then there are two questions about church membership.
- As a member of Christ's universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?
- As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?
Question 1 is about becoming a member of The United Methodist Church, a global web of local congregations. We describe this relationship as connectional. All members of every congregation are joined to all others across the globe, which is an exciting part of what it means to be the church.
For example, our participation in the Imagine No Malaria campaign has reduced deaths from that disease by half. You and I did that! Though we may never meet one another, nor the people who directly benefit from that ministry, we are making great things happen. Lives are being changed in ways no one of us, nor any single congregation, could do on our own. Being a connectional church makes ministries like this possible.
Question 2 asks new members to commit to the people with whom they worship every Sunday. We vow to be part of the body of Christ in our local community, and to support it well. We pledge to think less about our individual desires and more about the good of the whole.
We live into this vow when we teach a Sunday school class, serve as an acolyte or usher, or stand shoulder-to-shoulder working on a local mission project. We fulfill our promise by serving on committees, giving a portion of our income, and setting up tables and chairs. We are faithful when we support one who is struggling, visit another in the hospital, and support others in grief.
All in this together
When the new members finish their vows before the congregation, the worshipers then renew those same vows as a sign of our commitment to one another.
In this section of the service, the pastor asks the congregation to do all in their power to support the new members. When the members respond to this invitation, they renew their promise to faithfully "participate in the ministries of the Church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ."
The Rev. Shane Bishop emphasizes that in the church he pastors. "Membership is useless," he said, "unless it is a strategy to make disciples of Jesus Christ." Bishop is lead pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.
Christ United Methodist Church encourages their members to remain faithful to their vows by adopting a principle they call "Worship +2 and a Tithe." The "+2" is a reminder that in addition to regular worship attendance, each member is expected (1) to participate in a small group, and (2) to serve their neighbors. This practice reinforces every member's connection to one another and non-members.
In some circles, it is popular to talk about church membership as optional. The Christian faith though, was never intended to be a solo journey. The first followers of Jesus came together for teaching, meals, prayers, and more (Acts 2:42).
The same is true today. We are better together as part of a local congregation. We are better together as part of a global church.
Membership may have its privileges, but in The United Methodist Church, our commitment to Christ and one another is far more important.
This story was first published on June 9, 2015.