Gracious openness and active discipleship as key characteristics of church membership

Today, in the Congregation where I am serving in ministry, as a group we refreshed our membership and reaffirmed our commitment to active discipleship within the Congregation and the community where it is based.

The classic way that we deal with membership in the church has been in terms of status. This is how membership is defined, both in the Constitution of the Uniting Church as well as in the Regulations which govern the ways that we operate. The status of a person can be identified in that we are baptised members, or confirmed members, for instance.

So, the questions asked to determine membership are along the lines of: Is the person baptised? Has the person, if they were baptised as an infant, confirmed their baptism by a public declaration of faith? Or has the person been received into this Congregation from another denomination?

That is how we have usually compiled membership roles. Identify the date of your baptism, or the time when you confirmed your faith, or show a letter of transfer from another denomination. All of that is in terms of status. It is about setting good boundaries, defining clear limits. It is a closing off of the membership list at a clearly demarcated point.

Another way to approach membership is in terms of function. In this approach, the questions become: How does the person express the commitment of membership? What tasks and responsibilities might reasonably be expected from the person? How is a person’s faith commitment evident in their daily lives? These are matters of how the person functions as a member. This is about being active within the group, and about seeing the boundaries of the group as fluid, transparent, open.

There is a section of the UCA Regulations which provide a guide for membership that is more dynamic than the status categorisations, that sets out what is expected of members in a UCA Congregation in active, dynamic terms. The section is a description of Confirmation, in terms of the key markers that will be expressed by a member.

CONDITIONS AND MODE OF CONFIRMATION

1.3.3 Confirmation shall be according to an order which meets the requirements of the Assembly and which makes provision for the candidate to declare: acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, determination to follow him in daily life, intention to participate actively in the fellowship of the Church and to support its work, and resolution to seek the extension of the reign of God in human society.

There are four key features in this paragraph:

* acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord

* determination to follow him in daily life

* intention to participate actively in the fellowship of the Church and to support its work

and

* resolution to seek the extension of the reign of God in human society.

This offers an understanding of membership in terms of a gracious openness, which is not bound by legalistic requirements, but which celebrates the active participation of people in the life of the church. This more accurately reflects the nature of the church as a inviting community of grace and inclusion, rather than as a closed book matter.

When we raise the issue of membership within the church community, I propose that we do it NOT in terms of “are you baptised and confirmed?”, NOT in terms of “do you attend Sunday morning worship?”, NOT in terms of “are you on the rosters?”, or “do you contribute financially?”, BUT rather in the terms set out in Regulation 1.3.3, to foster this sense of gracious openness.

Thus, we would be looking for people to make commitments in various ways: first, a faith commitment, traditionally expressed in terms of commitment to Jesus as “Saviour and Lord”; and second, to the local community of faith in Queanbeyan, in four specific ways.

One element is that people would express their commitment through active discipleship in their daily life. That is, discipleship is not measured primarily by what people do on Sunday, but by their deeds and words on each and every day of the week. It seems to me that, after expressing faith in Jesus, this aspect is the primary measure of membership.

Good members are active disciples. How that is expressed is worked out differently by each person, in accord with the gifts that the Spirit has given them, for their specific ministries.

Alongside this, there is a commitment to active participation in the fellowship of the Church, which can encompass the various ways that people gather together under the umbrella of the UCA: in Sunday morning worship, in weekly coffee groups, in fortnightly discipleship groups, in the regular bible study groups of the congregation, in the prayer group, in Messy Church gatherings, in friendship group gatherings, and in other ways that people gather together.

Good members participate regularly in fellowship. Participation in any one, or more, of these gatherings contributes to the overall sense of fellowship that we share as a community of faith. No one gathering is of more weight or more significance than any other.

Membership also involves active support for the work of the church. This can be in physical ways, through providing morning tea or mowing the grass or counting the offerings or reading scripture in worship or leading worship in the aged care facility or praying regularly for the people of the church and the mission of the church … and in many more ways.

It can also be in financial ways, through contributing a regular offering to support the work of the church (and such offerings may be given electronically or directly during worship). Good members are supportive of the ministry and mission of the church.

It is also clear that membership involves a commitment to work for the reign of God in human society. This can take many and varied forms: assisting in preparation of meals for the needy, participation in rallies relating to climate justice or justice for refugees, serving with Meals on Wheels or visiting people in a hospital or an aged care facility, taking people shopping when their mobility is limited or providing meals for people whose domestic situation is difficult, and in so many more ways.

Good members are working for the health and flourishing of others in society.

In association with supporting the mission and ministry of the church, and seeking the reign of God in our society, we might reasonably expect that good members are also willing to bear witness to their faith commitment, to offer words alongside of deeds, to speak about their faith as they participate in fellowship and serve others in need, to testify to their faith as they stand for justice and work to encourage one another.

And although it is not specified in the formal documentation of the church, it would make sense for us to be wanting to talk about what we value, to testify to the one who loves us, to share faith in appropriate ways with others. That might provide a fifth mark of the church: good members are committed to discipling others.

Of course, this looks like a long and daunting list. And it is! Probably there is no one of us who could affirm that we do all of these things each and every week of our lives. Yet, the list is aspirational (we aspire to be like this) and visionary (this is what we imagine we could be like). It is a good list for us to commit to.

I hope that all congregations are able to demonstrate this gracious openness as they encourage members to be active disciples.

Supporting the Climate Strike

It is clear to me that many people across the Uniting Church are concerned about the impacts of climate change, and have been supportive of the various efforts to raise this attention in the public arena. The Climate Strike this week is the latest such enterprise, and we should be supporting it. In addition, we need to ensure that we do everything we can to change our way of living to reduce our impact on the environment.

When the Synod of NSW.ACT met in July, it agreed by consensus to support the School Student Climate Strike on 20 September, and others like it. Synod comprises people from towns and cities right across NSW and the ACT, from every Congregation and Presbytery of the UCA. I was very proud, as a member of the Synod, to see the clear message given by the younger members of Synod, and the strong support across all members.

The precise resolution is:

SYNOD CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION STRATEGY

Resolved 106/19S

That the Synod

(i) Develops a Synod-wide Climate Action Strategy to reduce carbon emissions across all levels councils and agencies of the Church and to advocate to the Federal, State Governments and Local

Councils to take decisive steps to reduce our emissions nationally.

(ii) Supports initiatives taken by young people in advocating for action on climate change, including the global climate strikes.

You can find this on page 5 of the Minutes at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/7536/synod-2019-minutes-final.pdf

I blogged about it at the time at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

and my colleague Amy Junor provided a fine reflection on the set of issues involved in confronting climate change, at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/19/climate-change-a-central-concern-in-contemporary-ministry/

The widespread support for this decision, both at Synod and in discussions subsequent to this meeting, is quite striking. In my experience, this crosses generations, political leanings, and theological commitments.

The Moderator has written an article, published by Eternity News, which articulates the theological underpinnings for supporting this strike, which you can read at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/current/why-the-uniting-church-supports-students-striking-for-climate-change/

A Synod media release was issued on 26 August, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/media-release-uniting-church-the-first-to-endorse-the-climatestrike-movement/

A strong statement has been issued in support of the strike from the Head of Newington College, a UCA school in Sydney, at https://massmail.fi.net.au/t/ViewEmail/j/CE89880F76CEFA0D2540EF23F30FEDED/F4747CB15B40540BF99AA49ED5AF8B9E

Common Grace has provided a clear explanation of the issues involved at https://www.commongrace.org.au/im_rallying_for

Vivian Harris provides clear testimony about the impact of persistent protest at https://climateactionbega.blogspot.com/2019/09/persistent-presence.html

and The Conversation explains how participation in such an event can motivate stronger action for change at https://theconversation.com/why-attending-a-climate-strike-can-change-minds-most-importantly-your-own-122862

These links provide us with a clear understanding as to why the Uniting Church has been such a strong advocate for participation in this strike and why we are joining with school children and concerned citizens around the world to participate in this strike.

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

https://revivemagazine.org.au/2018/07/20/and-god-saw-it-was-good/

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Where will we find hope? When will we see justice?

There are people in some of the Congregations of the Presbytery where I am currently serving in ministry, who will be finding the events of the next three weeks a challenge. They will be looking for hope, and seeking for justice. People from my Congregation at Queanbeyan, and people in the Goulburn Parish, will especially be impacted.

Today at Queanbeyan, the Prayers of the People were led by Marg Cotton, who invited members of the Congregation to pray for these people.

i invite you to join with her and the people today who prayed:

Lord God, we come before you today

seeking to make sense of a world

where there are many contradictions.

Bad things happen to the young and the innocent.

Wrongdoers prosper and seem to have

no remorse for the havoc they cause.

Sometimes it seems that there is no justice,

and that inequality and incivility are increasing at an exponential rate.

We make the effort to build a respectful

and hopeful community,

but the work of a lifetime can seem fragile

and doesn’t seem to be able to survive

without our continuing vigilance.

Misunderstood and misunderstanding,

we ponder our next steps.

Like the people in Jeremiah,

we feel cut off from your fountains of living water

and all we can see the is the cracked cistern

that can hold no water at all.

Where will we find hope?

When will we see justice?

Teach us, Lord, how we should be acting

in the current circumstances.

Let us first turn to you in humility

and recognise our need to be remade

and refreshed by you.

Come Lord and show us the path to take.

On this first day of spring

give us hope for the future

and a sense of purpose and optimism.

With the coming of spring

there is the hope of new life.

Help us to be ready to grow

and work together in this new season,

to hear your plans for us

and act to bring them into being.

In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen.