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.