Friday, September 29, 2006

Membership - what's at stake?

Membership and church meeting matters appear to be rising up the agenda of a number of groups within Baptist life at the moment. Some other bloggers - notably Andy Goodliff and Sean Winter - are addressing it and the mainstream network has raised it as one of the issues to be faced by an apostolically-focused movement.

For me the issues still boil to two big questions. Firstly, how can everyone who feels that they have a stake in a church be included in decision-making. And secondly, what decisions ought to be being made when the church gathers to talk 'business' (I don't like that term, but you hopefully know what I mean!)

I don't think that everyone who could be defined as a stakeholder should have a say in what the church does. For example, the parents of children who come to brigades could be said to be stakeholders in that they have a stake in brigades running well. But they do not have sufficient involvement in the rest of the life of the church to have a say in how it's run.

But there are people who join in church activities regularly - attending services, home groups - and give to the offering whenever they are there who, it could be argued, ought to be heard or consulted in some way about what we do. After all, something has attracted them to the church, something is keeping them - at the very least we should be having a conversation about what that is.

Perhaps their views can be represented by well-informed and in touch leaders who are mixing with those on the fringe and slightly further in.

Some suggest that churches are not democracies and argue that leaders should lead. After all, they say, God has anointed them for a task, they have been appointed to it by the church, so the church should let them get on and do it. The church meeting is then about vision-casting - the appointed leadership informing and enthusing the gathered church about where they feel God is taking them.

This is an attractive model and it clearly works in some groups. But it's not without problems. It's all very well casting vision but what do we do when the church throws it back at us and tells us it doesn't think we've listened hard enough to what God is saying?

The church is not a democracy - though I'm not sure democracy is such a dirty word, is it? After all, our Baptist forbears were among those who campaigned for greater political democracy during the English Revolution on the basis of their belief in the equality of all men (women tended not to be included!).

But vision needs to be owned by those who are expected to fund it and do at least half the work required to make it happen. At the very least common sense suggests we ask them beforehand if they think it's a good idea.

At a more theological level, of course, Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 2 is that we have the mind of Christ between us, not in us individually. I never cease to be amazed that Paul in that letter never once tells the leaders to sort the church out. He tells them all to unite and come to a common mind about how they should live based on what he says.

Indeed I have a feeling that our views of leadership are out of step with the New Testament, based as they are on a reading back into those texts, of practices derived from much later times. I'll blog about this separately.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Gathering and listening

I'm just back from a stimulating church weekend away with a neighbouring church. I was leading the conversation on how we live as Christians and do church in Mcworld. As well as me talking, the church worked in groups applying the message from Philippians to their local situation.

So much, so common - it happens at church weekend up and down the land.

But I started wondering half-way through the weekend - in the light of the discussion on this blog about membership and church meetings - how this process differed from a regular church meeting where God's people gather to discern the way ahead.

Stuart from Kirkintilloch Baptist Church (hi Stuart - really nice to hear from you - greetings to everyone there!) points out that church meetings are more than a check and balance. They should be places of creativity and insight. He suggests that leaders ought to be creating a culture of participation and teaching participation as a spiritual discipline (I like that phrase very much).

I think the spiritual discipline of participation was on view over the weekend I've just returned from. People seriously and intelligently wrestled with what the Scriptures were saying to them in their particular context. And it was not just general stuff. Some of the feedback from the groups indicated that people were really seeking to apply insights to decisions the church has to make about its future direction, structure and organization.

It was like being at an exciting, extended church meeting.

Of course we were away for a whole weekend, eating together, walking and playing together, laughing over coffee and chocolate late into the night. Out of these relationships came honesty and engagement. That can't be replicated in an hour on wet Wednesday in the church's back hall.

But the group work part of this can. What if church meetings become just part of a consultation process that also includes home groups and other small group gathering where people share out deepening relationships. Creativity and insight can be encouraged there far more easily than at church meetings. Participation can be taught and modeled over a long period of time. People cane share in the security of knowing they are doing so among friends (sadly, not always true at church meetings).

Perhaps no important business relating to the direction or the mission of the church should come to church meetings until it has been thrashed out in home groups over a couple of sessions. Would that improve participation and decision-making?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Who are we?

I'm off to Ashburnham in beautiful Sussex later today to do a weekend away for a neighbouring church. Yesterday it was 28 degrees, deep blue skies and summer; today it's grey and wet and 10 degrees colder. I was looking forward to afternoons on the lawns, discussions by the lake; now I envisage groups huddled round the central heating. Oh well.

I'm working with my Christians in McWorld material based on Philippians - I love that letter. I've revamped it a lot (the material that is, not Philippians!), added a whole session and, I think, made it a lot better. I'm wondering if there might be a book in it. I might trail some of it here through the autumn.

One of the key things I'm looking at is Christian identity in McWorld - who tells us who we are? In Philippi the empire told people who they were, the Jews had a separate identity and people found a sense of belonging through cults and associations. How did the Christians fit in?

It struck me that having opened by calling his first hearers 'holy ones' (saints, 1:1), his usual greeting, he goes on to remind them time and time again that they are 'in Christ'; 20 times he uses that phrase (or the related 'in the Lord'). Such a concentration of spiritual-geographical boundary markers in such a short letter indicates something about Paul's intent, I think.

I suspect it's no more than this: he wants to remind them that whatever pressures they're under from the surrounding culture, their neighbours and possibly the political authorities (though there's not much evidence of any official interest in the followers of Jesus on the part of the governing powers in Philippi), they are to see themselves as citizens of heaven whose true identity is found in Jesus.

This accounts for the amazing poem about Jesus in chapter 2, introduced with the call to think about our lives as Jesus thought about his and the equally amazing testimony of how Paul has modeled his life on that of Jesus and invites his hearers to do the same. Our identity then is found in our destiny - 3:14, 20f - and our location 'in Christ', a suggestion that Christian identity is simultaneously individual and corporate.

And that individually and corporately, we live out our citizenship - politeuesthe (1:27) - in a way that honours Christ. This speaks of the kinds of communities we create in McWorld and the kind of politics in which we engage.

I'm looking forward to having a stimulating time...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Belonging and membership revisited

'The challenge is to encourage people to be congregants rather than consumers.' So says Wulf and I think he's put his finger on a key issue.

We come at most things in life these days as consumers. But belonging to a church requires that we come with different expectations. There's nothing wrong in wanting to get something out of belonging. But there has also got to be a desire to give something of ourselves. I suspect this is what lies behind the term 'congregant' in Wulf's post.

I think he's also right to question whether church meetings are about discerning God's will from scratch. I think he's suggesting that their role is to discern whether leaders have themselves correctly discerned where God wants to take us. In that sense they operate as a check and balance against excessive ministerial domination of churches - and are probably a good thing.

Baptists have often seemed uncomfortable with 'leadership', feeling that every decision must be made by the gathered congregation. That is, of course, a recipe for paralysis and an invitation to the loud to dominate proceedings. It puts a lot of people off participating in meetings. I've spoken to a number of church members who stay away from church meetings because their voice wouldn't be heard in the hubbub and the clamour of those who always feel the need to express themselves - whether or not they have something useful to say.

If some members view the church meeting as a place where they have the right to speak, are they acting as congregants or consumers. Sometimes, I think, they are acting as the latter.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gareth Davies-Jones

We had a gig with Gartehr Davies-Jones at church last night. It was a blast. He is a great guitarist, very good somgwriter and gifted comunicator. If you want to check him out then visit

Choosing to join

Wulf's comment highlights an important point in the Baptist understanding of church and that's that belonging has to have a measure of 'demonstrable consent' on the part of each person who wants to belong. So this means, he suggests, that not everyone affected by the ministry of a church is a stakeholder.

I'd certainly agree with that - though I'm interested to know where stakeholder-dom starts in relation to a church.

But I do wonder whether the church meeting as currently set up can be the only way we gather to determine where God is leading us a congregation. It would certainly be good if people sent their apologies for not attending - it suggests two things: they know there's a meeting and they know they should be there.

But I really wonder whether we need to think in terms of having a variety of forums where views can be expressed and God's will discerned. Is it very unbaptist to suggest that God might lead two separate gatherings of the members of a single baptist church in the same direction? After all, we tend to take 1 Corinthians 2 as determinative for what's happening at a church meeting (at its best) and yet that was written to a community that for the most part met in small, scattered groups across the city of Corinth.

Friday, September 15, 2006

belonging and membership (part 2)

If what I said in my previous is anything like accurate - and I think it probably is - it raises a number of fundamental questions about membership of our churches.

Here are a few I raised with my leadership team at recent get-together by the seaside.

Many people feel they ‘belong’ to our church but they don’t see any need to become ‘a member’ – and they might walk away if ‘membership’ in the formal sense were pressed.

At the same time, many long-standing ‘members’ feel that they no longer ‘belong’ in the way they once did because the church has changed in ways they aren’t sure they like they like since they joined it.

Then, more and more people are coming from traditions that practice Christian initiation in a way different from Baptists. After all, denominational loyalties appear to be decaying. So how do we help such to 'belong' and come into 'membership'?

Lots of churches are finding that many members are unable or unwilling to come to members’ meetings for a whole variety of reasons. If only 70 out of 400 come to a church meeting, what is the quality of the decision-making? How might members who can’t/don’t come be heard?

Many who ‘belong’ but haven’t become ‘members’ feel disenfranchised, even second class, because they are not allowed to come to members’ meetings. How do we involve newcomers in helping to create the kind of church that keeps them (having attracted them in the first place) and attracts others like them when it is only ‘members’ who can vote at church meetings?

And maybe the most pressing - though invariably unasked question - is this: what does financial giving do to a person's relationship with the church? If I give on a regular basis because I feel as though I belong but have not become a member, does that give me the right to a voice in how that money is used? Those who live in a consumer culture would suggest that it does. Those wedded to the traditional baptist view of membership might think the question to be in very poor taste indeed.

I wonder if John Drane might not be on to something when he suggests that we use the language of stakeholding to talk about involvement in church.

If we understand stakeholders to refer to ‘all those inside or outside an organization who are directly affected by what it does’, Drane asks ‘who are our stakeholders?’ And he offers this list – God, people who come to church, their friends and relatives, church members, Sunday school teachers, ministers, leaders, children and young people who come on Sunday or mid-week, people who come to mid-week activities (parent and toddler groups, social projects, lunch clubs, etc). It’s a big and diverse list.

And it brings a fresh set of intriguing questions: are all these people really stakeholders? If so, in what way? And, maybe most importantly, how do we hear their views and take them into account in our decisions about how we develop the life and work of the church?

Answers on a postcard please...

belonging and membership

In common with a lot of baptist churches we are having a think about what it measn to belong and what that has to do with being a 'member'. Chatting with a mate this afternoon, he told me his fiance - an anglican - was extremely puzzled by our baptist way of doing things. Well, join the club, love...

Here are some reflections on where I think we are and what the implcations are. They'll appear in a couple of posts - just to keep it manageable.

Some suggest we live in a low-commitment culture and that this has had an effect on people’s willingness to commit themselves to anything. We see it in the shortage of volunteers for church programmes and offices; we see it in the patterns of attendance at church – twicers used to refer to people who came twice on a Sunday but now tends to refer to those who come to a service twice a month. Many lament the passing of a generation – now in their 70s and 80s – who were very committed to the traditional structures of our Baptist churches and who are not being replaced the generations rising behind them.

So-called ‘low commitment’ is seen in all kinds of areas of life. Will Hutton uncovered it among shareholders who have no commitment to the long-term health of companies but only an eye to a quick return and a desire to keep their investment options open. Others point to the divorce rate and, more significantly, the falling number of marriages to indicate that we have a different attitude to long-term relationships than previous generations. On top of that, cohabiting couples are four-times as likely as married couples to split up. A study of choirs and music groups in Milton Keynes showed declining membership in all of them and even steeper declines in the actual attendance of those members at rehearsals and performances. And in Bromley, Community Links has lamented recently how difficult it is to get volunteers for all sorts of groups that used to be well-supported.

No wonder churches are struggling, then. In common with other organizations, we are affected by changing patterns of commitment which themselves are products of wider and deeper changes in the way people live their lives – longer working hours, greater travel times to work, more diverse and widely spread families, greater participation in all kinds of entertainment (cinema, gigs, theatre, eating out, working out – all of which have grown more popular over the past generation).

One of the key cultural shifts in the past 30 years has become something of a clich̩. It is called consumerism. Once this described the practice of shopping and applied to a few wealthy people who had the levels of disposable income that allowed them to shop for fun. Since the 1980s such consumption has become the focus of the British economy Рspending in the high streets and especially on our homes and gardens has become the bell-weather of economic health; property values have become the prime measure of individual wealth and investing in our properties is not only a key leisure activity but also an industry employing many thousands. One of the key facets of consumerism is that it suggests anyone can become an expert, anyone can determine what is best for them and their family, choice is king.

And consumerism has spilled over into the way we regard other areas of life that once would have been talked of in terms of ‘service’. For example, opticians used to be part of the health sector, providing a ‘service’ to ‘patients’; now they are shops selling glasses and other devices to customers. Such a change has happened in all areas of public service – health, education, social services, housing, etc. We increasingly want these services to meet our needs not an agenda set by others. We used to say ‘doctor knows best’, now we demand that doctors do what we ask them; the health services is said to be more ‘patient-focused’; the doctor as ‘expert’ has been replaced as the doctor as provider of what the patient – who has become the ‘expert’ (no one knows me like I do) – wants. Likewise in schools we’ve seen the rise of parental choice; they are the consumers of educational services for their children. This might or might not be a good thing, but it is a product of a consumer mentality.

Not surprisingly this change in the way we think about these core activities, affects how we think and feel about other commitments – including religious ones. The rise of new spiritualities through the 1990s is indicative of a desire to have a spiritual dimension to our lives that is driven by the same desire to have something tailor-made, that fits me like a glove. The authors of the major study of the town of Kendal published last year under the title The Spiritual Revolution, subtitled their work ‘why religion is giving way to spirituality’. In their view religion was an organized activity where the agenda and rules were set by religious hierarchies and especially by experts known as priests, whereas spirituality is an individually-tailored response to the transcendent.

Does this have any bearing on church membership? I think is raises some pretty fundamental issues. What do you think?