“Membership Has Its Benefits”
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, June 19, 2022
Reading: Hebrews 10:23-25, 32-36
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…”
She was new to the congregation, and it was a different denomination than she had grown up in, but it was Christianity, the people followed Jesus, so it was familiar territory, and she had a good level of comfort and confidence. She asked the minister: “Now that I’m a member of your church, what’s this going to do or change? What can I expect from the church, and what does the church expect of me?”
That’s a good question… for all of us! WE could clarify our thinking by exploring that question a wee bit. What does the church contribute and what does it expect of its members – newcomers and long-timers?
To answer that let me take us into scripture, and the early Christians expectations of their members: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…”
Joining a church used to be an act of conformity in our society. You joined a church because everybody ese did. The rules have changed, and conformity is no longer a motivating factor. Instead, membership is an act of decision and commitment… to Jesus…. and to Jesus’ followers in a church. Since there are seven people joining us today, I thought this once I would share with you my thoughts on what membership is about, and what it involves.
Now, it could be a bit awkward to do this because we want clarity without rigid conformity. In the United Church, and here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church we want to be a safe place for modern people to be able to investigate Christianity without feeling pressured to “sign on the dotted line” and no questions asked. We welcome spiritual seekers, church shoppers, and religiously curious people because we believe it is healthy to ask questions, check things out, probe and discover for yourself. I try to say regularly to visitors, “It’s important to take your time, test drive it a bit, kick the tires… of a church… of your faith.” I really believe that. Still, having acknowledged that point, I want to make the case this morning for a day of decision, a time of commitment.
For your consideration, let me offer some thoughts on what joining means, and what it does (whether it’s United, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, independent Bible, Salvation Army... you get the point.) Membership these days should identify a person as a genuine believer. The early church leader, Paul explained this to some other new Christ-followers. “Now, you are no longer strangers to God and foreigners to heaven, but you are members of God’s very own family… and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian.” Eph. 2: 19, LB.
They had made a connection to God, and God’s family. This was announcing where they stood, what direction their religious life was going. And that is BIG. Isn’t this the great issue for us in the modern world? What will I believe? About faith? About life and death? About God? There are a variety of options out there. It’s wide open now… all the world’s historic religions… cults… a variety of philosophies…. unbelief… atheism… agnosticism. Isn’t having so many possibilities confusing and almost overwhelming?
One of the great benefits of joining a church is that you are zeroing in and focusing on an authentic, lasting, stable belief system. You are choosing to say, “I DO believe in God; I accept that God loves me; I choose to believe that God has shown himself in Jesus of Nazareth and offered us hope and power and a pathway as we follow Him. I choose to open my heart to this God”
Let’s unpack that a bit more. If we had a big screen here, I would give you three bullet points of my theme ideas: ATTEND, COMMEND, and EXTEND. Corny? Yup, but easier for me to remember and explain, so I’ll go with it.
ATTEND: Right away I know I’m preaching to the choir, and the converted – that is those already here and/or watching and listening. You are “attending.” Why should we? Listen to the letter to early Christians again: “Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.” Yes! Great advice! Why is that valuable? Well, Christian spirituality is not a solitary experience or a one-time thing; it is the journey of a lifetime… Toward God. With God.
Can I qualify this a bit? It’s important to understand that church membership, while identifying us as believers and followers of Jesus, does NOT mean we are immediately perfected, all-knowing people. Most of us still have questions to answer about the mysteries of life. We in the church still make mistakes (together and individually). We still have moments of doubt and despair, but we have chosen the spiritual path we travel, and we are delighted to discover that Jesus is travelling with us for we have identified ourselves with Him and allowed Him to join us on the journey of life.
We are also expected to attend regularly for stability. Do you know what ballast is? Someone recently reminded me that every ship has weight, usually lead weight secured along the bottom center of its hold, running all along the keel so it will not shift or move, and keeping the ship from rocking or swaying too much.
Attend can also mean to pay attention to spiritual exercises and practices. Study groups like Alpha, Hearing God. Revelation, Soul Keeping, and mystical prayer. I did 12 weeks and there were 45 or 50 people attending to their spiritual fitness. Regular attendance at your church for worship, or a study or growth group will keep your life stabilized even when the winds and storms of life are strong and waves are high.
Secondly, expect to COMMEND. By that I mean to encourage and inspire one another, build one another up. Across history, and especially today in our mobile, multicultural, somewhat fractured society, churches ought to be safe communities where people get affirmed, accepted, cheered up and cheered on. Rather than discouraging or criticizing people, we ought to encourage and inspire.
A minister friend of mine told me about a visitor to their church earlier this year. She was going through a tough time in her life, and the first Sunday she came she could only cry. She had some emotional wounds and a spiritual yearning. It didn’t matter what was happening in the service: hymns, prayers, scripture, children’s time… she found her eyes tearing up. She was embarrassed, but the woman beside her just leaned over and handed her a Kleenex, then a few minutes later another. When the tearful visitor tried to apologize and thank her, the regular member smiled and said, “Think nothing of it honey. When I started here all I could do was cry too. Now I bring extra Kleenex every week and pass ‘em around.” Bingo! We build each other up. We commend them.
That’s one way to treat a visitor – a very good way! Here’s another example… not so good! An elderly woman walked into the local neighbourhood church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.
“Where would you like to sit?” he asked politely.
“The front row please.” She answered.
“You don’t really want to do that,” the usher said. “The preacher we’ve got is really boring.”
“Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired.
“No.” he said.
“I’m the preacher’s mother.” she replied indignantly.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“No.” she said.
“Good,” he answered. And hurried away.
Not the best way to treat a visitor – spewing negativity and criticism. Rather, be gently welcoming, and positive, which nudges us toward the last theme: EXTEND.
By that I mean reach out, offer God’s love and Jesus’ grace to those beyond yourself. Extend this church’s witness. Extend God’s care and compassion. Extend friendship and welcome to someone who might be helped by a connection to this church, and by the living presence of Jesus in their lives.
I was looking at the reasons a person starts coming to church. It was intriguing and encouraging to me – because of how important we are, and how unimportant expected tactics are. For instance, years ago, many of us would say that an evangelist, an expert in proclaiming religious messages would be effective in getting many people to start attending a church. But even a good evangelist, like Billy Graham has drawn less than one percent of church attenders. The attraction of a good preacher in a local congregation gets about five percent of the people in. Even the reputation of splendid programs like music and choir, terrific youth programs, or great seniors’ care will only draw about eight percent of the people into a congregation.
The biggest factor in drawing new people into a congregation is the invitation of a friend.
More than 73 percent of people, nearly three-quarters of those who started to attend a local congregation say they did so because someone they trusted invited them: A neighbour, a workmate, a friend said: “Why don’t you come with me next Sunday morning. I’ll meet you there, or better, I’ll pick you up, and we can go together.”
Here’s the flip side of that: Researcher George Barna has surveyed North Americans who do not go to church and found that one in two have never been invited or asked! Think about that. Why do half of unchurched Canadians stay away? Because no one ever asked them to try it. No one has issued a friendly invitation.
I know it’s not the easiest thing to do. You certainly don’t want to offend or be a pest. But we also don’t want to neglect someone who is spiritually curious or needs spiritual help and would come if they knew a friend would make it safe and comfortable for them, answer their questions, or sit with them in the crowd. Who wants to be a stranger in a crowd? That’s intimidating, isn’t it? But to go together isn’t too bad.
Think for a minute. Isn’t there someone in your life who is leaning toward God and spiritually hungry or curious? We might even think it’s pointless, we’re wasting our time, but the truth is, giving them a chance to connect with God, to have a group of faith friends, to get some Christian ideas into their thinking, could really help them. And it will only start when each of us decides to try, to extend the invitation, to extend the outreach of this congregation to any who might receive it.
Let me give you a real live example. I had a great chat with our music director, Dr. Elaine Choi. I asked her about her faith journey, her history within the church. She told me that she’d started life in Hong Kong, but her family really had no church connection. Until she was seven years old, and one of her school friends, Emily, invited Elaine to come to her Sunday School. Elaine went and began to go regularly. I think it was a Baptist church. Over time, Elaine’s family emigrated to Canada, and as she got better and better at music, she was asked to play and has contributed her great musical skills and talent to Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. And she’s been leading worship and music programs here at TEMC for 11 years!
Look how we have benefitted, look at the positive ripples coming to us, from years ago and miles from here. I want to say publicly, I thank God for little Emily (wherever she is, now grown up). I thank God for her and what she did decades ago, that is now enriching our worship and our faith lives.
So, friends there is our mandate, our task, as members of Jesus’ team: ATTEND – COMMEND – EXTEND. The Lord be with you, in the task. Amen.