Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reading and viewing

I've been listening to David Bowie's recent Heathen - an excellent return to form after a decade or so of indifferent output. I'm also reading CJ Samson's Dissolution, a thriller set in the days of the Henrician Reformation. It's wonderful.

I am also working my way through David Horrell's Solidarity and Difference: a contemporary reading of Paul's Ethics. This is an accessible yet scholarly investigation of Paul's moral teaching. At base Horrell argues that Paul's ethics were rooted in community and therefore much of what wrote was about the creation and maintenance of Christian community. Further, he demonstrates that for Paul Christian living is impossible without the support of a community of fellow-believers. It has much to say about our current discussion on membership.

Not sure what to make of Torchwood which started on BBC3 on Sunday evening. A Dr Who spin-off with weird creatures and adult content. Good one-liners couldn't quite fill the gaps in the script - but it was hugely entertaining. It's like a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the X Files.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Levels of language

Sharp as ever, Wulf quotes 2 Peter to suggest that Paul's language isn't always clear or simple. And having recently completed a short commentary on Galatians (due out in the Crossway Bible Guide series in mid-November), I'd have to agree.

My point in the previous post was a slightly different one. It is that Paul chose words to describe the gatherings and leadership of the groups he was planting around the Mediterranean rim that were not 'religious' but were drawn from the business and social world of his day.

After all, the message (euanggelion another case in point, as Philip notes) was in places hard enough. So Paul appears to have been keen to put no stumbling blocks in the way of people hearing and having the chance to respond to that message.

Sometimes I think there's a danger that we do the opposite: our language about membership gives the impression that the good news about Jesus is for a special group of enthusiasts who know what the words mean and we use those words to exclude rather than include.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More on language

When Paul wanted a language to talk about the gatherings of the followers of Jesus, he didn't mine his religious heritage for it. Rather he used the vocabulary of the market place.

The word ekklesia (which we translate 'church') was a word used to describe gatherings of all kinds - especially political ones. Famously in Acts 19, the magistrates in Ephesus use the word to describe the riot of the silversmiths (v32, 40) and the gathering of the people in council (v39) - where both times 'assembly' (in the NRSV) is a translation of ekklesia.

Then when Paul uses words to describe leadership, he is infuriatingly fluid in his use of language. Sometimes he speaks of elders (a Jewish leadership word) and sometimes he uses episkopos (the Greek word we get bishop from but which was used in the first century to describe a leader in a voluntary association). Maybe his use is determined by who's reading his words - those of a Jewish background would recognise 'elder' as a leadership word, while those from Gentile background would know 'episkopos' was someone with a leadership role in the community.

Paul seems to have gone out of his way to find language to describe church that his readers would have found familiar from their context. New Testament scholar Andrew Clarke says: 'It is clear that these early Christians were already operating with the expectation that the characteristics of leadership within the Christian ekklesia should parallel those characteristics of leadership in the civic ekklesia'.

But while Paul used familiar language to describe his gatherings and the leadership in them, he spent a lot of time describing how those gatherings should function and how leaders would operate within them. In other words he used familiar words and then gave that language a Christian twist through how he talked of them.

I think the genius of this is that it helped people to feel unthreatened and at home as they came into churches because the words used to describe how things were done were familiar to them. Over time, the meaning of this language was filled out with a particular Christian take on it.

Perhaps we need to learn to use language to talk about membership in our churches today in a similar way.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The language we use

Much of the discussion on membership over the past few days has been about the language we use. How right our final correspondent is to say that so much of what we do in church is opaque and therefore unwelcoming; people come and go without really knowing what is going on.

We used to joke that some old fashioned Christians used the 'language of Zion' to describe their faith and explain it to baffled outsiders. But I fear that we still use language people don't get and assume knowledge that people don't have. And we don't realise how this excludes people.

If I come to church and find the experience baffling or feel that there's an in-group who gets what's going on and the rest - almost like spectators watching from outside - I'll struggle to connect.

The same is true of talk about membership business meetings. I might have felt included in the services I have come to, even the home group I've attended. But the language we use about membership and business meetings still leaves me feeling like an outsider. The danger with this is that it raises a question about the reality of the welcome I've received: if I'm not really a part of this central, decision-making activity, am I really a part of anything else?

The problem here is the language we use to answer the question 'why should I join? What difference to my sense of belonging and my contribution to the church would becoming a member make?'

Often we talk in terms of mutual accountability. And frequently, this is the first time we use this kind of language. Perhaps a way of bridging the gap would be to talk about mutual support for and accountability to one another from the moment people arrive in church.

We have begun to talk about the need for everyone who comes to our church, who wants to follow Jesus, needs to be in a mentoring relationship where they get support and are held accountable for the way they live their life in the world.

If everyone in our churches was in such a relationship, maybe the language of membership would not appear so opaque. However, if this kind of mentoring were on offer, what would it do to our understanding of membership?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Douglas McBain

I've just received the very sad news that my friend and mentor, Douglas McBain has died unexpectly. Please pray for Christine and the rest of the family.

Douglas was a phenomenon. He took me under his wing when I was new to ministry and he was London Superintendent and enabled to have a voice and a wider ministry as well as helping me to focus on what mattered in my ministry locally.

I'll miss him

In Christ and in membership

There have been really excellent comments posted recently in response to this discussion about membership. None more so than this one: 'it can at times appear that someone being in Christ is not as important as being in membership.'

The correspondent went on to share their feelings of being somehow second class because they were not a member, concluding 'the fact that I have a real and active life in my Lord Jesus didn't seem to give me permission to see myself as part of my new church family, it was membership that gave that which I found very sad and still do.' I have to say, so do I.

I have always believed that when people are baptised in a church they should automatically become members of that church. After all, we are baptising people into Christ, declaring that by their faith they are members of Christ's body, so surely by this act they are also members of this local expression of his body? Sadly we baptists have separated theology from practice and ended up with a system that can cause pain and misuderstanding.

But there is another point here too. And that concerns people attending our churches from other traditions, people who are 'in Christ' by virtue of their faith and yet are not 'in membership' and therefore can't participate in key areas of their new church's life. It's this area I'm keen to do something about in terms of how quickly and on what terms we include them fully in the life of the church.

Jane's comment about having a mentor is a key one too. I am about to preach on that and am keen to see some kind of mentoring system established in our church. It seems to me to be key to creating disciples whose lives make an impact. I'll be exploring what patterns are available out there - I'm quite interested in Lifeshapes, but there are others. What I'm keen to see is people in my church in mutually supportive and accountable relationships, growing in their walk with God, becoming intentionally missional.

Thoughts on this would be great.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Disciples and membership

I am enjoying this discussion - thanks to everyone's who's commented; plenty of room for more. I think the passion and intelligence of the comments suggests that this is a key issue facing our Baptist churches.

I agree with Stuart that we want to promote participation, that meeting is about more than just consultation. We need to unpack what the word 'congregation' means, I guess, so that we can put flesh of the bones of belonging and discerning the mind of Christ together.

I get nervous when I hear talk of leaders leading and churches being envisioned by them. I've met too many walking wounded from such situations to think that the model's basically ok providing it's properly managed. I think it's flawed. I just can't quite put my finger on why!

At the same time, I'm beginning to think that our decision making is a but thin when a two thirds majority of members present and voting actually represents only 10% of the church membership. Of course, I have reservations about 'voting' as such but rules and charity law mean that certain things have to be decided by a recordable consensus (a vote by any other word!)

We're planning to try the idea of meeting over lunch on a Sunday to see if we get more participation.

But my key concern is not so much about how we do 'business' (though that's important), it's about how we get participation so that our church becomes a place that makes disciples who in turn are disciple-makers. It seems to me that that is what church is for at a fundamental level and that membership and meetings of members are a way of organising things to make that central purpose happen.

So I agree with Wulf that we need to get back to talking about this so that we are able to reflect Jesus to our neighbours in a meaningful way. Everything we do as a church should aim for that - including how we organise belonging and how we make decisions as churches.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Members, meetings and ownership

Over a cuppa yesterday afternoon, a friend quipped that membership was really all about ownership. And I thought, 'yes, she's right.' However, she had meant the quip negatively, whereas I was looking at it as a positive thing. Wonderful thing the English language!

Her argument is that some members think they own the church and, more particularly, its ministers. She's right, of course. Many Baptists do think membership and church meetings are a way of exercising power and ensuring that the church and its ministers do exactly what they want - hence giving them ownership over the church. And this is what leads many people to throw their hands up in horror and exclaim their antipathy to church meetings and membership in all their forms.

My immediate thought when she said it was that ownership is a key word in this discussion about belonging and membership. How do we create a sense of 'ownership' among those who belong to our churches? Of what does such 'ownership' consist? It seems to me that people express their belonging to an organisation by feeling that in some way they own its programme - ownership often being expressed in a willingness to fund the programme.

So, where does this word fit in our thinking about membership?