Blog Banner

Archive for membership

Boundary Issues

What is the basic message of the gospel? Is there a core essence that can be extracted from all the stories, traditions, rituals, and writings of our faith? To ask the question another way: How can we know which of our practices and beliefs are truly essential to who we are as followers of Jesus, and which can be safely let go of in order to make faith more accessible to everyone?

This question is explored throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews learn what it means to be God’s people. God gives them very clear boundaries, a set of rules to live by. At the same time, God also expresses an intention to bless the whole world through an obedient, holy Israel. The Hebrews are called to a special way of life as a people, yet through the prophets they are also taught that God has a plan that embraces all of humanity.

In the New Testament, we see this plan coming to fruition in the person of Jesus Christ. Through his obedient life, selfless death, and amazing resurrection, Jesus breaks down the dividing wall between the holy people of Israel and the rest of the peoples who do not live under the strictures of Torah.

Almost immediately, early Christian community is confronted with questions about what rules, if any, non-Jewish Christians must conform to in order to be acceptable to God and the community. Must all followers of Jesus keep kosher, be circumcised, and observe the many other laws of rabbinic Judaism? Or has Jesus revealed an even deeper, broader source of salvation that transcends the traditional boundaries of Jewish regulations?

Over time, the early followers of Jesus came to understand that the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Through the continuing guidance of this Spirit, the Christian community diverged from traditional Judaism by accepting uncircumcised believers who did not stay within the boundaries of ethnic Judaism. For untold billions of non-Jewish Christians, this new understanding has been an immense blessing, removing stumbling blocks that might have held us back from the salvation that we find in Jesus.

Nevertheless, we continue to wrestle with boundaries, and with what the essential message of the gospel is for us today. For example, the early Church, Anabaptists, Quakers, and early Pentecostals, among others, have held that war-making is incompatible with Christian discipleship, yet many other Christians believe that military service can be reconciled with our faith. Is these Christians’ openness to war-making an example of an appropriate broadening of the faith, or does it represent an unfaithful dilution of gospel boundaries?

There are plenty of other examples. Do we recognize the ministry of women? Do we permit national flags and other state symbols in our worship spaces? Do we embrace LGBT brothers and sisters, and their marriages? Do we condone divorce?

Different churches and denominations take different stances – or allow freedom of conscience – on these kinds of questions. Regardless of the particular issue, however, the broader question is always one of where the essential boundaries of our faith must lie. Which questions are a matter of personal interpretation, and which are matters of our shared commitment to the gospel?

How does your community discern which beliefs, practices and boundaries are essential to your shared faith, and which are ultimately optional? Can you think of question of faith and practice where disagreement could prevent a person from being invited into membership? How do you find clarity in what is essential, while seeking to put no stumbling blocks in the way of those who are seeking to serve God and follow Jesus?

Community: What is the Point?

Quaker musician and minister Jon Wattspublished another provocative blog post on Friday, entitled Support A Minister. Sell Your Meetinghouse. In his characteristically passionate style, Jon is calling on the Quaker community to step up to the plate and support the ministry that God is raising up in our midst. He insists that genuine, Spirit-led ministry requires real commitment, not just on the part of the minister, but also from the wider community.

For many Quakers, the idea that we should financially support ministry is a radical concept. The truth is, we often struggle with providing even basic counsel and spiritual care for our budding young ministers. Rising generations have a deep need for mentoring, love and guidance – a need that often goes unmet for a variety of reasons.
In some cases, our communities may not have the spiritual depth to provide this kind of care. Other times, we might shy away from providing explicit guidance for the lives of others, fearing the appearance of hierarchy or rigid dogma. So often, our capacity to guide and care for the emerging gifts in our midst is simply overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
If providing basic spiritual care and oversight for ministry is often challenging for us, providing financial support can be even harder. We are caught in the economic stranglehold of the Great Recession, and most of us are looking for ways to reduce costs and hold on to the little bit we have left. Even in more prosperous times, financial support for ministry could be a hard sell. Now is a particularly unfavorable moment to make a pitch for financially released ministry.
Yet the crisis facing the Quaker community today is not primarily financial. As a group, North American Quakers have all the money we need. Scarcity – at least for the time being – is not the issue. The real question facing us has to do with what it means to be a community in the 21st century.
For Quakers, the definition of community has been unraveling for at least 150 years. At one time, Friends lived under a tight code of community discipline, similar in many ways to the modern-day practices of the Amish or Conservative Mennonites. Being a member of a Quaker Meeting meant submitting to a strict code of dress, behavior and speech. It also meant participation in an intense form of solidarity with the other members of the community. If the Meeting determined that a minister had been led by God to travel in the service of the gospel, Friends would financially support that minister and her family for the duration of her travels. Ministerial trips frequently lasted for months – even years.

Our way of life has changed dramatically in the last century and a half. At this point, “community” is a vague term that can mean almost anything, and even the most traditionalist Friends come nowhere close to the level of shared commitment, discipline and solidarity that once characterized our Meetings. Indeed, the basis of our congregations has become so weakened that in many places the very idea of formal membership is being challenged. What is the point of formally joining a Quaker Meeting?

This is a legitimate question. In most cases, our communities are a pale reflection of the robust network of relationships, mutual support and obligations that once characterized our fellowships. When formal membership no longer represents significant commitment, it is quite reasonable to ask: What is the point?

I think that we as Friends would do well to sit with this question, without seeking to answer it too quickly, because it strikes to the heart of our shared crisis today. Clearly, the structures of historic Quakerism do not work the way they once did. The Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting no longer have the same power to draw us in and command our attention. Why is this?

Jon Watts writes about the ministry of prophetic music, saying, “I want to say that I don’t see it as myministry. It is yours. You tell me what to do with it.” Who is Jon talking to? Who is the community that Jon is seeking to be accountable to? As best I can tell, Jon is speaking to “all Friends everywhere.” In his desire to be faithful, answerable and supported, Jon has reached out to everyone.
But “everyone” is not a community, in concrete terms. In the Quaker tradition, members of communities make concrete commitments to one another, and stick to them even when it is uncomfortable; even when there is fierce disagreement. Members of Christian communities love one another, not merely because of momentary passion, but because we sense that God has knit us together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We become a body. The body of Christ.

We all long for this. Our hearts ache for this true community – the fellowship we find when we are drawn together into something bigger than ourselves. This experience of unity, love and shared purpose in the Spirit is the basis for all support, shared discernment and accountability. It is the foundation upon which sustainable ministry is built.

Do our centuries-old systems of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings still serve as useful containers for this experience? Is formal membership, as it functions in many of our local congregations today, an aid or a hindrance to the uniting power of the Holy Spirit? Do the ways that we gather together amplify the voice of Christ within, or do our inherited forms threaten to block the continuing revelation of Jesus?

Jon Watts suggests that we should sell our meetinghouses and use the proceeds to support Spirit-led ministry. That is an exciting idea. But we may need to go even further. What would it look like to re-imagine our formal structures as Friends? What would a 21st-century understanding of membership look like? Of gospel ministry and eldership? Of mutual support and accountability under the direct leadership of Christ?

What if selling the meetinghouse is just the beginning?

Abolishing the Laity

One peculiar feature of the Quaker tradition is our insistence on the role that each individual has in the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s will for the community. The entire membership of the church is called upon to exercise the authority that in many Christian traditions is held by a small group of ordained leaders. Quakers reject the clergy-laity distinction as unscriptural and spiritually damaging. All of us are called to be fully invested and involved in the life of Christ’s Body. Each one of us has a special and equally valuable role to play in the life of the community.

I think that Friends sometimes fail to recognize what an awesome responsibility is implied by our understanding of spiritual equality. We can be glib in our assertion that every believer is called to a particular ministry. Yet this insistence that all Christians are called to some form of ministry and leadership is deeply radical – and at odds with the way that most of the Church does business.

The Friends tradition demands a great deal from the average member. Each of us is called to be a leader. Depending on our spiritual gifts each of us will provide leadership in different areas of our life together. Some are called and gifted to focus on pastoral care and counseling. Others for evangelism. Some teach, and others give vocal ministry in the meeting for worship. Everyone has a part to play, and many of us have more than one role that we are gifted for.

While we are leaders in a variety of areas, the Friends tradition does not acknowledge a special class of Christian, set apart from the rest of the body. Rather, we are all set apart for the Lord’s work. In this, the testimony of Scripture is proven true: We are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”(1) Every Christian is called to a life of holiness and commitment that outshines the superficial purity of religious officialdom.

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to holiness; to leadership; to lives totally devoted to God’s service. We are also invited to participate in the decision-making of the Church. Gathered together in the Spirit, our lives – as individuals and as congregations – come to reflect God’s will and character.

How does this affect our understanding of membership? Perhaps the top-down leadership model of many denominations lets the bulk of the membership off the hook. There may be a different standard for ordained clergy than for the average woman or man in the pew. As Friends, however, we have no such release valve. The entire weight of Jesus’ call falls on each and every one of us, with all of its ecstasy and agony. We are left with only the tender care of the Holy Spirit and the loving arms of our community to sustain us in the Way.

How do we empower each sister and brother to live fully into the leadership that God is calling them to? How do we hold one another accountable as fellow learners in the school of the Spirit? How do we show the unconditional love of Christ Jesus, even while upholding the integrity of the community?

1. 1 Peter 2:9

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Introduction


The Search for Depth and Meaning


There is a hunger in western society today for a sense of purpose and belonging that goes deeper than the daily grind. We live in aWorkers at Eastern Market, DC world that is overwhelmingly focused on profit and appearance rather than service and substance. While some of us are fortunate to have paid work that to some degree satisfies our need for meaningful labor and community, there are many others for whom their professional life is mostly a burden to be endured – a transaction of time and energy for a paycheck.

Even for many of those with a satisfying professional life, something is still missing. Despite financial success and career advancement, there remains a subtle emptiness in our lives that we cannot shake. We attempt to address this void in a variety of ways: Volunteering at charitable organizations; taking up hobbies; or numbing out with television, music, internet, shopping, alcohol and drugs. In a world where we are consistently told that we are responsible for our own happiness, we find that we are incapable of producing purpose. The depth of life that our hearts desire remains out of reach.

The Myth of the Rugged Individual


The myth many of us have been raised with is: “If you are smart and hard-working, you can have anything you want. It’s up to you.”Shoppers at open-air market in DC Despite the optimism of this creed, many of us have found that our new national myth is false on multiple counts. To begin with, no matter how much we have educated ourselves and no matter how hard we have worked, real depth of purpose eludes us. The Western dream of endless prosperity and opportunity is revealed to be shallow and selfish; we are spiritual orphans listening to ipods in air-conditioned offices. We can have anything we want, perhaps, if all we want is soul-numbing entertainment.

Furthermore, we discover that we as individuals are not capable of accomplishing anything. We depend upon a web of interconnected relationships and social conditions, many of which are harmful and hold us back from growing to our fullest potential. Though we were brought up to believe that our destiny depended primarily on our own personal decisions, we come to see that our decisions are only a small piece of the overall picture. We cannot exist – much less achieve our goals – except in the context of community.

And some communities are more conducive to peace and fulfillment than others. Most of the subcultures in our society focus on goalsWorkers at Eastern Market, DC other than serving God and neighbor. In many of our offices and barracks, schools and nonprofits, competition and self-interest are valued above compassion and self-sacrifice. Nation-states demand loyalty and support even as they routinely harm others in the pursuit of greater wealth and power – developing horrible weapons and dominating neighbors. We abuse the earth, hideously disfiguring God’s creation, all in the name of “growth and development.” Clearly, there are many human communities today whose ends and means are starkly at odds with the Reign of Christ.

But there is an alternative. There is a community in which each person can find the deepest wholeness and purpose, in which the human family as a whole can experience love and peace, showing respect for God’s creation in all its grandeur and beauty. The Church – the community of those who follow Jesus and participate in his life, death and resurrection – is this community. When we live in Christ, we find that our entire worldview shifts; instead of having our character and destiny dictated by the prevailing human culture, we are transformed by the living presence of Christ in the community of his friends. We participate in him, and his life becomes the setting for our own. In him alone we find true freedom, experiencing the depth and purpose that we have longed for all our lives.

Emigrating to the Kingdom of God


Think about it this way: If a person relocates to a foreign country, they are not simply changing locations – they are fundamentallyVendor at Eastern Market, DC altering their entire frame of reference. This change may not be clear at first, and the emigrant may cling for a long time to the way of life left behind in their home country; they may continue to eat their country’s food, speak their native language, and relate to others as they would in their home environment. However, over time, the emigrant slowly but surely absorbs the local culture of the country to which they have relocated.

Over the course of months and years, the emigrant’s life is reoriented around the language, assumptions and way of life of their adopted country. Eventually, when the emigrant returns to their country of origin for a visit, they feel out of place in the land they used to call home. Their transition into a new frame of reference is complete – they are now more adapted to their new country than they are to their homeland.

When we commit to following the guidance of Christ’s Spirit over all else, we have effectively emigrated. We were once members of theWalking up stairs dominant society, but when we began to follow Jesus we forfeited citizenship in our earthly nations. Our process of growth in Christ is one of naturalization into the Church. As we are reoriented to the language, assumptions and way of life of our new community in Christ, we are transformed – not merely by our conscious, personal choice, but by our ongoing participation in the Church.

Making it Through Customs: Membership, Covenant and Engagement


In the essays that follow, we will explore what it looks like for us to change our spiritual nationality. We will consider the role of the individual, the Church, and the wider society as we transition away from being primarily participants in the dominant culture, becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God. We will examine the concepts of membership, covenant and engagement, looking at the ways in which individuals are nurtured and sustained by the community of disciples. Then, we will consider the role of communal decision-making, and how discernment takes place at all levels of the Church. Finally, we will look at the fruits of corporate discernment: the shared work that we as the Church undertake to make the love of Jesus visible to everyone.

As we explore the meaning of membership, covenant and engagement, we discover the way that Jesus is alive and active, showing love and mercy to the individual, the community of faith, and the world as a whole.

Rethinking Membership

As we re-examine what it means to be the Church in a post-modern, post-Christendom context, one important tradition thatGreat Plains Yearly Meeting at Central City, 2008 bears a fresh look is that of church membership. Membership has changed a lot over the centuries. In the early Church, membership was a result of a long process of initiation and sacrifice. Membership meant real risk – socially and economically – and even carried the possibility of public torture and death.

During the late Roman Empire and Middle Ages in Europe, membership in the Church was generally automatic: Infants were initiated into membership in the Church, and adult conversion was a rare occurrence. With the whole of western society being based in a Roman understanding of Christianity, to be a European was to be Christian.

Things changed markedly with the Protestant Reformation in the fourteenth century. Suddenly, there were a variety of competing groups, all claiming to be the true Church. To add to this uproar, new sects such as the Anabaptists (and, later, Quakers) insisted that membership in the Church could not be conferred at infancy; instead, they claimed, each person must make a personal decision for Christ as an adult. In many places, particularly in areas strongly influenced by Arminian thought, membership in the Christian Church was no longer only a question of birth or culture; instead, it had become a personal choice.

In the centuries since the Reformation, western society has becoming increasingly focused on the rights of the individual asFriends at Quaker Camp, 2007 opposed to the rights of the community, and human happiness has come to be understood largely in terms of individual prosperity and freedom. As materialism has grown ever more pervasive in the West, the way we understand membership in the Church has become correspondingly consumerist. It is common for people today to speak of “church-shopping,” and membership in a congregation is often thought of primarily in terms of what benefits – material, social and spiritual – the individual receives from the congregation. In our present culture, the Church is at grave risk of becoming yet another commodity to be hawked in the consumer-driven marketplace.

Many congregations and denominations have begun to think in these ways explicitly, speaking openly about “market share” and mounting business-style advertising campaigns. Faith in Jesus Christ becomes something that we need to “sell” to others, and the Church becomes a product to be marketed. We have been so deeply influenced by our society’s materialistic individualism that we often treat Jesus as no different from Coca-Cola or the latest fad diet. We sell the Body of Christ.

Clearly, in this environment, we need to rethink membership and what it means for us as missional Quaker communities today. HowOhio Yearly Meeting, 2009 do we respond to the consumer-driven model that has infected even the idea of church membership? How do we reclaim the tradition of membership in the Church as being part of the Body of Christ, part of a radical community of those who are committed to serving God and neighbor together? Instead of continuing down the road of deadening self-gratification, how do we once again place mission at the heart of our life as the Church?

Earlier this week, I read Scott Wells’ post, “Renewable Church Membership?,” and I was reminded of the opportunity we have to think radically about what it means to belong to a congregation. The way have done membership in recent years is not set in stone, and there is no reason we cannot do things differently, as the Lord leads us in our present context. I was particularly impressed with Scott’s willingness to look at how membership might be considered as an ongoing, mutual commitment between the congregation and the individual. So often today, membership in our churches can become almost meaningless. I know of many Meetings where the majority of the “membership” has not attended meeting for worship in years. The older the Meeting, the more this can become a problem, as children and grand-children start piling up as paper members but never make a real commitment to the congregation.

I believe that Scott’s proposal of renewable membership might be worth considering as we seek to establish new missional QuakerYoung Quakers in Greensboro, North Carolina Meetings that can be a transformational presence in their local contexts. I know that the Church of the Saviour – a venerable example of the old-school missional Church – has long emphasized the commitment that membership entails, both to Christ and to the other members of the Church. The Church of the Saviour required membership to be renewed each year, and they linked membership to specific commitments of time, energy and financial resources to the community and to mission.

How might we re-evaluate how membership functions in our Meetings? How is God calling us to change our ways of thinking about membership in order to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our present context? Are we ready to shake things up?

New Membership, Growth on Capitol Hill, and Missional Faith–Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #24

Dear Friends of Jesus,

As the month of October draws to a close, and the daylight hours grow ever shorter, we here in Washington, DC are seeing autumn at its apex. The trees are in the final throes of their changes of color; soon they will be entirely bare. Winter is coming.

During this time of seasonal change, my wife Faith and I are experiencing our own transitions. This month, we became membersRockingham Meeting of Rockingham Monthly Meeting, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We have been attending Rockingham regularly, about once a month, since last November, and it became clear to us and to Friends at Rockingham that we were effectively becoming a part of the fellowship. At Rockingham’s October meeting for business, we were formally accepted as full members of the Meeting.

Faith and I are pleased to become a part of Rockingham Meeting, and, by extension, of Ohio Yearly Meeting. This feels like a good fit for us, first and foremost because of the bond that we feel with Rockingham Friends in the Spirit of Jesus. We deeply respect their integrity, discernment and love for one another in the Lord. In the time that we have been among them, we have indeed come to feel ourselves a part of them, and them of us.

While it was sad for me to release my membership in Heartland Meeting and Great Plains Yearly Meeting, I believe that membershipGreat Plains Yearly Meeting sessions, 2009 in a Meeting should reflect real commitment and involvement. Because of the great distance between me and Friends in the Great Plains, coupled with my lack of plans to return to live in Wichita at any point in the future, I felt that my membership with Friends there was increasingly becoming a formality, rather than a lived relationship. I believe I am being faithful in changing my membership status to reflect the human and spiritual realities of my life as it is now.

I will miss being a part of Great Plains Yearly Meeting, and I do continue to pray for the Yearly Meeting as a whole, as well as for each local Meeting. The end of my membership does not signal the end of my caring for each Meeting and each person in GPYM. I pray that the Lord will present opportunities for me to be of service to Friends there in the future. More importantly, I pray that God raise up the local leadership that Great Plains Yearly Meeting needs to be revived. I trust that God will be faithful in leading us, if we will be faithful in waiting on the Holy Spirit and putting Christ’s commands into action.

As new members of Ohio Yearly Meeting, Faith and I are getting the chance to become more deeply involved in the ways in which God isFaith on the Mall moving in this fellowship of Friends. The weekend after we were accepted into membership at Rockingham Meeting, we attended Stillwater Quarterly Meeting. Stillwater Quarter rotates its sessions in a two-year cycle, which allows each Monthly Meeting to host. This time, the sessions were held in Chesterhill, Ohio, at Chesterfield Friends’ Meeting House.

Faith and I were honored to stay at the home of Richard Wetzel, who is mayor of Chesterhill. He was a wonderful host, and gave us a nice tour of the town and the surrounding countryside on the evening that we arrived at his house. Then by surprise, a special guest came via limousine car service atlanta, which was a little excessive, but what he had to say made up fro that, maybe philanthropy is coming back, we shall see what the future holds. The next day, we attended Quarterly Meeting at the meetinghouse. It was good to see many familiar faces, as well as some new ones, and I was pleased to be able to be a part of the answering of the queries as a Quarterly Meeting. At this particular gathering, the entirety of Rockingham’s full membership was able to be present, which was truly a blessing to me.

I appreciate very much Ohio Yearly Meeting Friends’ commitment to gathering together on a regular basis, despite the distancesFriends at Rockingham Meeting involved. The drive out to Chesterhill from Harrisonburg is about five hours in either direction (and six from Washington), but I do believe that Friends had a sense that the effort and cost of gathering together was well worth it. Stillwater Quarter is an immensely dispersed fellowship, ranging from Flint, MI in the north; Atlanta, GA in the south; and Lancaster, PA in the east. I believe there is a sense that Stillwater will eventually need to set off a new Quarterly Meeting, but Friends have not yet seen clearly how to divide the Meetings. The Quarter has been growing in recent years, and I suspect that continued growth may provide a clearer solution.

We continue to see signs of new life at Capitol Hill Friends in DC. Our meetings for worship in the downstairs conference room of the William Penn House have been well-attended, and morale is high. We have been greatly blessed by visits from Rockingham Meeting, as well as by a number of other Friends from around the country. We feel presence of Christ in our meetings for worship, and we have a sense that we are growing – both numerically and spiritually – as a small Meeting of the Body of Christ.

Seeing how this little fellowship of God’s people is being drawn together is one of my greatest joys, and I am deeply grateful forMicah and Faith at the Jon Stewart Rally for Sanity everyone who has been praying for us and encouraging us in our ministry here in DC. Soon, I will be preparing a more structured request for prayer support, which I will be sending out to some folks by email. If you would like to be involved in intentionally supporting Faith and me in our ministry with Capitol Hill Friends, please get in touch with one of us so that we can add you to our prayer partners list. And, as always, I invite you to let me know how we can be praying for you, as well. We hold many of you in prayer already, but it is helpful to know how to pray specifically for individuals and Meetings.

I would like to mention one more thing before I close: I have recently begun to publish a series of essays entitled Missional Quaker Faith on my blog, The Lamb’s War. In this series, I am attempting to sketch out a vision for what our lives and church communities might look like if we laid aside everything to be fully available for Christ’s mission for us in the 21st-century West. I hope that you will join me in exploring these issues, and share your comments as you feel led. You can easily subscribe to The Lamb’s War either by email or by RSS feed; just look at the upper right-hand side of the blog to see how.

I pray that you are experiencing the living power of Christ with you in your daily lives and in your Meetings. Trusting together in the Seed of God, who is the root and reward of our friendship, we will be remade in the image of Christ.

In the Love that is beyond the world,

Micah Bales