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Barrel of Monkeys

Practicing Membership

We will soon be welcoming new members of Cuba United Methodist Church. What does it mean to be a member of Cuba United Methodist Church? Formally and legally, it means that you have been baptized, professed publicly faith in Jesus Christ, taken membership vows, can vote at “church conferences,” and can be elected to a few offices which only members may serve. But what does membership mean practically?

One of the great gifts of our congregation is its friendliness, warmth, and genuinely welcoming culture. We are made up of all sorts of people from our local area. We work well together. We care about one another. But these are not gifts that are exclusive to the membership. You do not have to be a member for me to visit you when you are in need, to marry, to baptize your children, or to bury you. You do not have to be a member to serve on a ministry or governing team. You do not have to be a member to participate in or lead a small group. You do not have to be a member to call Cuba UMC your church, and for us to call you our fellow brother or sister in Christ. But again, what does membership mean practically?

I am leading our congregation to celebrate membership as an act of commitment. Commitment. Our neck hair raises at the word. Commitment is a scary word and an even scarier practice for most of us. We don’t want to be tried down. When asked, “Do you want to go out Friday night?” We answer, “I don’t know. I will let you know later.” We don’t want to let people down, and we don’t want to be let down. Commitment is an act of faith, an act of trust. This is reasonably scary. And not everybody is ready to take that step. And that is okay. You do not have to be a member to be loved by God, or to be beloved part of Cuba UMC. So, what does membership mean practically?

If membership is about commitment, then how do we act out such commitment? When people inquire about or when I teach on membership, I always draw attention to the taking of vows. The membership vows of “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness” recognize the institutional and evangelistic aspects of our commitment. Said plainly, they signal both the responsibilities of “showing up” and “showing forth.” I have taken seriously the joke about church mice: “The Catholics took them to the woods, and they returned. The Baptists tossed them in the lake, and they came back. The Methodists made them members, and they have never been seen since.” Thus, I am in no rush for people to become members. Our current process is to inform those interested in membership of the vows and their corresponding practices, encourage a season of living out those vows, and climax during the Easter season with a celebration of living out of those vows. Still, what does membership mean practically?

As I have consistently taught, the five vows of membership are tied to the five practices of vital Christian life. Our vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness are lived out as we worship, connect, give, grow, and serve. The nuts and bolts meaning of membership is to do five things: (1) passionately worship on Sunday, (2) give extravagantly with the tithe, or the 1/10th, as the standard, (3) radically connect with, care for, and be cared for by your brothers, sisters, and neighbors (4) intentionally grow in knowledge and love of God and neighbor, and (5) serve in risk-taking and worthwhile ways in order to makes disciples for the transformation of the world. We as a church support these five practices with two programs: (1) Worship Services where we especially practice worship and giving, and (2) Small Groups where we especially practice connecting, growing, and serving. Everything we do should support or hang from these two programs. We have a simple church. Such simplicity makes accountability possible. This can be both invigorating and threatening. Such simplicity makes it difficult to hide in the fog of vague expectations. So, final question. What does accountability as a member mean practically?

This question cannot be as easily answered through simplifying and clarifying. If you haven’t noticed, we have a tendency to hide, so any talk of accountability is bound to rustle our loin clothes (See the story in Gen. 3 of Adam and Eve hiding when they found out they were naked.) I have a suggestion as we continue to seek increased faithfulness and fruitfulness together. I have an idea for a gentle yet direct method to hold one another accountable as members at Cuba UMC. I suggest we continually and casually speak five short and simple  statements. These statements will clearly communicate our shared commitments as well as gently hold one another accountable. Here they are:

  1. “We make disciples for the transformation of the world.”
  2. “See you Sunday.”
  3. “See you at Small Group.”
  4. “What is your ministry?”
  5. “Thank you for your generosity.”

I have a hunch that these five simple statements said to one another consistently and casually will have utterly transforming effects.

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