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Sermon: Life Together: Membership or Discipleship? (using Transfiguration Year B text)

Sermon 2/5/12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Life Together: Membership or Discipleship?

            Every year, we spend some time reflecting on where we have been together over the previous twelve months, and then we turn our eyes to the path ahead of us, the choices laid out before us, and we wonder where God will lead us and how we will follow. Two weeks ago, as part of our worship and our annual meeting, we talked about what we have done and experienced in this past year, and we answered some challenging questions about where we go from here. I told you that we would spend the next few weeks thinking about our goals for the year ahead. For the past few years, we have had a set of goals that haven’t changed all that much in nature: we have been focusing on growing our youth program, stewardship education, enriching worship experiences, increasing our commitment to mission, especially hands-on mission, and being welcoming and hospitable as a faith community. And as I mentioned last week, I think we have a lot to celebrate in all these areas. We are blessed by our young people. There are an abundance of mission opportunities so that surely everyone can find a way to serve that is meaningful to them. We know our financial struggles, certainly, but we also know exceptional generosity in this congregation. I have found you to be willing to try new things in worship and try new experiences, especially during Advent and Lent as a way to deepen our connection with God. We have newer faces that are already invaluable parts of our church family. We have much to celebrate.
            But I also know we feel challenged, and frustrated, and we know that we struggle. We find ourselves up against some walls, facing barriers to being the kind of church we would like to be.  So, I think if we are meeting the goals that we set for ourselves, but we are still not being the congregation we want to be, it means we need to start thinking differently about our goals. We have outgrown them maybe, or perhaps need to look at even more foundational pieces of who we are. This year, my goals for us are not so concrete. They are goals that come with questions before we can give any answers. But I believe that we are on the cusp, at the tipping point, where we will either move beyond where we are to where God is calling us to be, or not. I hope that these goals will help stretch our minds and spirits in ways that push us in God's direction.
            This year, I want us to wrestle with three challenges. First: How can we move ourselves out of the center of the picture? Jesus was about turning things upside down, and he said that the last would be first, and the first is last. We are called to serve, not to be served. How do we focus not on being members but on being disciples? How do we push ourselves to put our needs second, and the needs of others first? Second: How well do we know the needs of the people of East Syracuse and the surrounding areas? How can we meet the actual needs of our community, instead of doing what best serves us? How can we become better listeners in the community? Third: What is holding us back from being the community of faith we want to be? How are our relationships with one another doing? How can we be united in our purpose, a team, working together to serve?
            Today, we look at our first goal – we want to be disciples of Jesus, not club members. How can we move ourselves from the center of the picture, and put those we serve in the center instead? Sometimes, I think the fact that you can become a member of the church confuses us about what the church is all about. We can be members of the church because we are members of the Body of Christ – literally the limbs – the hands and feet of Jesus – in the world. But somehow, over centuries, our idea of membership in the body of Christ has meant that we are less like the serving hands and feet of Jesus and more like the gatekeepers of the church. We are out of sync with the work of Jesus! Jesus called us, in the Great Commission, to make disciples, not members. We exist not for ourselves, but for others, and the needs we seek to meet are not our own, but the needs of those who have yet to hear the good news of God's boundless love.
            Pastor Michael W. Foss is author of a book that my Bishop when I served in New Jersey had all pastors read, and Fossʹ vision of discipleship rather than membership has stuck with me. He says, “Let’s think of the membership model of the church as similar to the membership model of a modern health club. One becomes a member of a health club by paying dues (in a church, the monthly or weekly offering.) Having paid their dues, the members expect the services of the club to be at their disposal. Exercise equipment, weight room, aerobic classes, an indoor track, swimming pool – there for them, with a trained staff to see that they benefit by them . . . Many people . . . have come to think of church membership in [similar] ways.” (Power Surge, 15) Foss continues, “In that model, ministry focuses on the membership of a particular congregation . . . If the membersʹ perceived need are adequately met, if they are happy with the services provided . . .and if conflict is avoided or minimized, then the membership can be counted on to do their part.” (16) “Membership is about getting; discipleship is about giving. Membership is about dues; discipleship is about stewardship. Membership is about belonging to a select group with its privileges and prerogatives; discipleship is about changing and shaping lives by the grace of God.” (21)
            In an amazingly short amount of time, in just two and a half weeks, Lent will begin, and we will follow Jesus again on the road to the cross. And I am struck that Jesus welcomed and embraced people not by inviting others in, but by pouring himself out. I think that’s what he meant by denying ourselves and taking up the cross if we want to follow. Not waiting for others to come to the safe place we have already found, but stepping out into the risky world where others are already, needing us, needing God. Disciples don’t stay in one place. They are on the move, following Jesus, and moving out of the way so that others, too long pushed to the margins of society, can finally be at the center of the love God offers. The church is this incredible body that exists not for itself, but for those who are not here first. Discipleship, not membership.
            Today and the next couple weeks we will look at scripture from Paul's letters to the Corinthians. The people of the church of Corinth struggled, as a developing faith community, to live out the gospel, and to find ways to be faithful to the message they had and the God they served. Today, we hear Paul reminding the Corinthians of their purpose: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.” If what we do together is about us, and meeting our own needs, and making sure we are happy, then we have forgotten who we are proclaiming here, and we are without purpose. But when we get out of the way, when we serve, when we proclaim Jesus, we are disciples. And what's more, I think we will find a faith that is so much richer than we knew before. Are we members, or disciples? Are we at the center? Or on the edges, on the fringes, following the path of Jesus? Amen. 


Jeremy said…
Well said, Beth. I'd also bring in some of the work of Robert Wuthnow ("Loose Connections" ; "After the Baby Boomers") and Carol Merrit ("Tribal Church"). Pretty solid, in my evaluation.

We're working with many of these ideas and goals as well, as are at least 4 other churches in our area (that I know of). I don't think this is a coincidence.

You're point about moving "us" from the center is a great one, and a powerful way to put it given our propensity to desire otherwise. I have my own biases about the traditional view of membership, and discipleship is a far more compelling and productive practice that *gasp* actually means something to the broader community because it is so radically different. Instead of experiencing the old and all too common -emic/-etic narrative of being in or out, heard or unheard (a common understanding of membership, much like the gym metaphor), everyone is invited to can see, feel, and experience just a little of what God's kingdom is like.

It's enouraging to me to know that other communities are working on this, and that church leaders like you, my pastor, and other lay leaders are perceptive and thoughtful about these issues - and that you're doing something about it! Thank you, Beth!


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