Tag: community of faith

Church membership reimagined

Some in my Southern Baptist denomination are calling for more stringent church discipline. That’s mostly because we can’t find about half of our 16-million members. Obviously, some of our folks don’t take church membership very seriously. The logical thing to do to solve that problem is tighten up — enforce church discipline — make members tow the line. But, that’s the wrong approach.

My solution? Do away with church membership all together. There is no biblical basis for “membership” in a church, and it’s largely ineffective today. The alternative is to create “participants” — one church calls them “partners” — people who connect to a church by participating in some or all of the things a church does.

For instance, some will be interested in worship. Others will take a course in parenting. Others will help in the food pantry, or whatever your community ministry is. Others will want to bring their children to an afterschool program like AWANA or Pioneer Clubs. Some will volunteer to help in the community garden. Some will be involved in more than one aspect of church life, others will not.

By creating “participants” churches no longer have to press people to “join.” We can then focus on building The Kingdom, rather than our own kingdoms. The objection, of course, is that people will not take church seriously if they don’t join. But, most don’t take membership seriously now, so I’m not sure we’ll lose anything. Plus, there is a difference in “belonging” and “joining.” You’ve probably experienced people who joined, but never really belonged. They soon disappear. By contrast, participants would feel they belonged to their interest group — or else they wouldn’t come.

By identifying them as participants churches will free people to experience the ministry of church in various ways, without pushing for a premature commitment. As for leadership, cream always rises to the top. Churches will easily identify potential leaders by their enthusiasm, commitment, and involvement. Potential leaders are then invited to join the “leadership development team” to be formed as leaders in the congregation.

Finally, most churches connect professing faith in Christ and joining the church. In the South, “joining the church” is actually code for becoming a Christian. By unbundling conversion and membership, churches make clear that commitment to Christ is our first priority, with participation in a community of faith as its natural by-product.

Local church administration will undergo a significant revision in this century. Would your church give up its membership rolls for the participant concept? Or, is this a really wacky idea? I’d like to know what you think.

Willow Creek’s Dilemma

After discovering that their church programs did not help people love God or others more…

Willow Creek had two choices —

  1. Reinvent themselves or
  2. Develop a new program to replace the old programs that didn’t work.

They chose number 2 — another program.  Reveal is the new program and has a book, a conference, and is being rolled out to the Willow Creek network.  I can understand their choice because Willow Creek is not just a church, they’re a movement, an informal denomination, a network whose “seeker” philosophy has served them very well if what you want to be is a high-profile “front door” into the Christian faith for thousands.  That is a very good thing, but certainly not all there is to the Christian experience.   Which is why their programs didn’t work after “seekers” became growing “followers.”

Willow Creek should have chosen to reinvent themselves.  Here’s why:

  1. The seeker model is running out of steam.   The baby boomers they attracted are aging.  People are no longer afraid of religious jargon or symbols, and surveys say most consider themselves “spiritual.”  In other words, the seeker philosophy needs rethinking.
  2. Maturing followers need ways to express their faith.  They could have done what Rick Warren did with the AIDS crisis, or his PEACE plan — give maturing believers something to do with their faith.  Not just more stuff to learn.  Hybels said maturing members needed to be “self-feeders” but maybe they need to be “servants.”
  3. The world is changing.  This is related to #1, but different.  In the 1970s when Willow Creek started immigration, AIDS, poverty, global economy, spirituality, diversity, and a host of other discontinuous changes had not rocked our world.  Seems like it makes sense that new challenges demand new answers. 

Small churches have advantages Willow Creek doesn’t have

This is where small churches have an advantage.  As I noted in an earlier post, small churches don’t need millions of dollars to reinvent themselves.  Small churches don’t have a big budget to feed.  Small churches can connect with specific segments of the community better than large churches.  Small churches can experiment with new forms of church.  Small churches can engage people in real conversations about their real lives.  Rather than adopting new programs, we’re trying to reinvent ourselves here in Chatham, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Willow Creek Study Says Church Programs Don’t Work

The ground has just shifted under the evangelical world.  Willow Creek, that combination mega-church and mini-denomination, has just discovered that church programs don’t work.  Here’s their conclusion —

…increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities [church programs] does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ.

It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more. 

[thanks to Out of Ur.  Watch the entire 13-minute segment with Greg Hawkins here, and Bill Hybels comments here.] 

Here’s the backstory:  Greg Hawkins, exec pastor at Willow Creek, surveyed Willow Creek members to determine the effectiveness of WC’s programs — small groups, worship, service groups, etc.   Participants had four choices to describe their spiritual lives:

  1. Exploring — not yet Christians, but interested.
  2. Growing — new Christians and growing in faith.
  3. Close to Christ.
  4. Centered in Christ.

The survey results produced what Bill Hybels calls “the wake up call of my adult life” —

Survey Says:  After a person left Stages 1 & 2, church programs did not help them love God or love people more.  And, to make matters worse, people in Stages 3 & 4 said they wanted to “be fed.”  Some even left Willow Creek altogether. 

Conclusion:  Church programs are helpful initially for new and growing Christians, but as people mature in their faith church programs are inadequate and ineffective.  (Watch the videos and look at Willow Creek’s new REVEAL website for their next move.) 

My Take:  People are looking for God.  After a seeker learns the basics of the Christian faith and makes a commitment to Christ, they want to experience God, not just learn about God. 

The survey indicated that people continued to grow, not through programs, but through the practice of spiritual disciplines — Bible reading, prayer, and other expressions of personal commitment.

Small churches have a real opportunity here.  We don’t have or need the “millions” that WC says they have spent on programs.  We don’t see people who come to our church as “customers.”  For those of us in small churches, newcomers have names and faces.  They’re our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives.  They know we have found a community of faith we love.  They come looking for the same thing.  And in that atmosphere, where real people have real experiences, we all encounter God together. 

That’s our strength.  Hopefully we don’t need a survey to remind us.