Membership or Discipleship?

My friend Matt O’Reilly over at Incarnatio shared an interesting article today about membership in the United Methodist Church. The entire article can be found here.

This article got me thinking about the Church in general and the idea of membership in particular.

I am curious as to how one becomes a member in the United Methodist church in places like Africa and the Philippines where Methodism is growing; are individuals required to go through a membership class? Are the standard membership vows taken? Some would argue that we make membership too easy; that we should consider that becoming a member of the Church in the first few Centuries required a great deal of time and sacrifice.

Several years ago I read a book by sociologist Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone. In the book, Dr. Putnam argued that Americans are not joining much of anything these days. He suggested several reasons for this including the fact that many American families change locations much more than ever before and because of the popularity of technology and the isolation that results. It has been my experience that Dr. Putnam is right. I pastor a congregation of mostly younger families, many with military ties. We would be seen as very “successful” in terms of worship attendance, but a dismal failure in terms of membership: very few of the families that attend our worship services show any interest in joining the church.

This begs the question: is membership necessary? Are we called to make “members” or “disciples?” Some might argue that discipleship will not happen until folks are committed and become members of the church. I am not sure I agree. In his latest book, One.Life, Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University Scot McKnight argues that true discipleship begins and ends with following Jesus; the sub-title of the book is Jesus Calls, We Follow.

If McKnight is correct, we may be barking up the wrong tree. Instead of trying to attract younger people and the unchurched into our worship services and assume that they will encounter Christ during a worship service and then join the church, perhaps we need to consider what it might mean to encounter young people and the unchurched outside the walls of the church, develop genuine community with them, and then invite them to follow Jesus. Young people particularly are looking for more than just an engaging and entertaining worship experience, and as Professor of Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, Kenda Creasy Dean has been reminding us for years: Young people are not looking for something to join, they are looking for something to give their lives to!

In the article cited above, Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship says that “(t)he increasing ranks of the unchurched will very likely not encounter the congregation first in worship because that is the last place they would want to go on their own, no matter how ‘cool’ it is …”

The article indicates that the primary reason for the surge in growth of the United Methodist Church in Africa and the Philippines is that people are longing for hope.

Is there not a longing for hope in America as well? I think there is, and I think that Bill Hybels got it right when he said that the Church is the hope of the world.

But I also think the Church needs to take a real close look at how we go about offering that hope.


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