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A Letter from the Associate Pastor to Presbytery

The Meaning of Church Membership
January 12, 2012

Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ,

What does it mean to be a member of a Presbyterian Church? How does it happen? Are we, pastors and congregations, good at helping people find their way into a life of Christian discipleship as guided by the Holy Spirit?

The New Form of Government tells us “Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege.  It is a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission.” (G-1.0304)  A person becomes a member by a “public profession of faith, made after careful examination by the session in the meaning and responsibilities of membership; and if not already baptized, the person making a profession of faith shall be baptized.”  A person may also become a member by a certificate of transfer or by reaffirmation of faith.  (G-1.0303)  A helpful list describing the “ministry of members” is provided in the next section.  This list would be a good discussion piece for new member classes.

The above language, which mentions “commitment” and “responsibilities” and “ministry” of members, flies in the face on the consumer mentality that is prevalent in so many “church shoppers” in American culture.  Notice that membership in a Presbyterian church does not start with the question of “What can the church do to fulfill your personal dreams and aspirations?  Nor, “How can the church help you in the pursuit of happiness or personal self-actualization?”  Membership starts with a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

In my early years of ministry, I would create new member classes that sounded more like a commercial for the Kingdom, a sales pitch for why the church should have a place in one’s busy schedule, rather than a time to help potential members learn about faith and the life of discipleship.  The classes were heavily focused on what “services” the church could do for a member or what the church could do to civilize a difficult teenager. A great proportion of time was spent trying to meet potential member expectations rather than sharing any expectations the church might have of them as they entered into the way of Jesus.

In his book The Present Future, Reggie McNeal makes the point that churches have been asking the wrong question when it comes to church membership in our Post-modern culture. Rather than trying to make members into “ministers” who fill a “slot” or whose only evidence of discipleship is serving on a church committee, he writes that the better question is “How do we turn members into missionaries?”  He questions whether churches are doing enough to create opportunities for spiritual formation in individuals, as well as in the larger faith community.  Are members being transformed into missionaries who live their faith in the routines of life and who look for ways of engaging the wider community or is their discipleship limited to expression within the “bubble” we call church?

As we enter 2012, perhaps this is a good time to reflect on how we invite people into Christian discipleship.  What we are really saying to them when they join as members about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.?  Are we seeking creative ways to assist them to be spiritually formed, not only for “active” membership in the church but for “active discipleship” in the world?  My prayer is that God would draw new people into every congregation of Pittsburgh Presbytery in 2012 and that God would give us the wisdom on how to welcome and equip them so together, by the Holy Spirit, we can make a difference for Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Douglas E. Portz, Associate Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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