A Higher Standard for Membership

July 30th, 2013

In the spring of 1979, my husband Michael and I landed in a small church beside a county road in Ginghamsburg, Ohio. Coming from a “country club” church on the east side of Cincinnati, we experienced culture shock but were confident that God could use us to help change the world, one life at a time. From experience, we knew that transformation happens in community. Michael began a sermon series that first summer on “the character of the community,” referencing the book of Acts and John Wesley’s practical disciplines in the infant Methodist movement. Like Wesley, we were about creating a movement of passionate people who were committed to following Jesus in every sense of the word rather than simply managing an institutional church.

What characterized the first century church—personal devotion, commitment to the needs of others, thousands won to Christ, intimate community—engaged us. And Wesley’s genius at organizing seekers and converts into vital discipleship groups that created mature, committed believers inspired us.

Discipleship Expectations

Wesley’s expectations of his members were high. Weekly participation in a group for encouragement, growth, and accountability was required—and at those meetings each person was to share a word from God (as the result of their personal practice of spiritual disciplines), confess their sins, make a financial contribution for ministry to the poor, and share how they had served others that week. There is a cost to following Jesus and being part of his church. Those discipled in Wesley’s system reflected the message of self-denial and focus that Jesus taught, and their influence on the world is evident.

The challenge for Michael and I was to create this movement and transition to a discipleship-based membership process within a small, rural United Methodist church with a traditional, low-expectation approach to membership. Vision casting from the pulpit was critical to help the parishioners grasp what we were about and to start moving those whose “hearts were strangely warmed” in response to the vision toward the same high expectations of members that Wesley held.

Discipleship always takes place in a setting smaller and more personal than worship celebrations, where relationships and accountability can grow. Michael began a discipleship group of twelve people in our living room every Wednesday evening to begin the training process of our members. The twelve-week curriculum that we use in our membership classes today evolved from the lessons he put together for that first group. (Called “Follower’s Life,” our curriculum was published as the Following Jesus program from Abingdon Press.) Each individual or couple in the group was expected, then, to launch their own discipleship group at the end of our initial sessions to train more members and spread the movement.

More Attendees than Members

Every church has varying levels of involvement and commitment among its constituents. Ginghamsburg is no different—and we began to realize that membership was not the first step of involvement for our people. Like Wesley, our members grow from mere curiosity and attendance into the place where they realize that life is not about them, but about fulfilling God’s purpose and mission through them.

Whereas common knowledge states that, typically, weekly worship attendance will be about half the number of people on membership rolls (or 40%, denomination-wide), those in membership at Ginghamsburg number far less than our weekly attendance numbers. Our 1500 members make up the smaller covenantal community within the 4600 average attendance because they have made the decision to commit to the high expectations of Christian discipleship.

Not everyone is at that point of spiritual maturity or ready to make the commitments of membership. That’s okay. Discipleship is a transformation process, with membership being one part. We are content to walk with people until they are ready to make the big commitments. By seeing the membership process as a training and discipleship process, we move past dealing with a list of names to a mission-driven group of people who can be counted on to show up and participate fully.

As Cledith, one of our members, reflected on the membership process, “Our basic Christian obligations are now so much more clearly understood by my husband and I as we walk with God and each other through the course of life.”

Training Disciples

So what is the membership training all about? We believe it’s essential for people to know who and what they are committing to. Every local church has its own unique DNA that sets it apart – its own core values, call, and approach to ministry. Our membership class helps clarify what our people are experiencing in our congregation by learning why we do what we do.

We address basic questions of faith and of our specific DNA as a church: Who is Jesus? What does it mean to call Jesus Lord? Why are life groups so important? Why do we use both secular and Christian music? What is the structure of the church and who makes the decisions…and many other questions.

We cover four basic areas in the twelve-week membership class: Explaining our theology tells them who we are, what we believe, and what that requires of us. Discussing Ginghamsburg’s mission opens eyes and inspires people to see how they can play a significant part in accomplishing that mission. Each class member is equipped to discover their spiritual gifts, passion and personal God-wiring in order to empower them in their place of service, thereby getting them connected to the church in a significant way. Because we know that people “stick” with a church by having a significant responsibility and/or significant relationships, we also coach about committing to covenant community through our Life Group (small group) ministry.

Four Commitments

When people stand in front of the congregation at the end of their twelve-week class, they make a statement of commitment for which they are publicly making themselves accountable. Reminiscent of Wesley’s requirements for members of the Methodist movement, the four things that each member of Ginghamsburg Church commits to are:

  • Faithful and consistent participation in worship celebrations,
  • Faithful participation in a life group for growth, support and accountability,
  • Use of their talents and spiritual gifts in service to others, and
  • Financial support of God’s mission through Ginghamsburg Church with their tithe and offerings.

Following through on these commitments has resulted in life-changing growth in spiritual maturity for our members and a world-changing impact by our church.

At conferences, I am frequently asked how to apply our systematic membership process in a small church. When Michael began our original membership life group in our home, we averaged only sixty in attendance. We invited those who were already members of Ginghamsburg Church to be part of a class in order to see where we were going as a church. Regardless of their choice to attend class or not, we grandfathered members onto the membership rolls while drawing a line in the sand that said a new process was in place from that time forward.

When called to be part of a high commitment church that provides the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, people responded and we have been blessed to see the movement of the Spirit that has changed individual lives, our church, our community and the world.

comments powered by Disqus