Living Beyond Membership

God created human nature with a desire to belong—to be a part of something larger than ourselves. This desire is good because it connects us to a greater purpose and vision for our lives and helps us to understand that we belong to Him. He uses this desire to draw us into His presence. 
We live in a culture where joining groups either on paper, in cyberspace or as a volunteer, is familiar. We unite around causes that mean something to us, like ending hunger or helping children who are victims of war. We join clubs centered on our interests, we connect with others who are like minded. We also join for financial benefits such as belonging to coffee clubs and companies that offer airline miles.
In many of our churches, the way we join is by becoming members. Membership in a church is a good thing. It gives us a place where we know we can hang our hat—a place to belong. The Old Testament shows us that belonging was not just a matter of filling a personal longing, it was an indicator of who you could trust (Genesis 32:17). In the New Testament, Paul writes that we are called to belong to Jesus (Romans 1:6, 7:4). Becoming a member of a body of believers where the gospel is preached and the sacraments administered is an outward expression that we belong to Jesus. A membership roster also serves the church practically in knowing how we’re doing with growth and retention numbers. Even the first church counted how many people they had (Acts 2:41).
Membership is a good thing, but the challenge arises when we become too comfortable with membership when discipleship is on the horizon.
If we are satisfied with membership, we need a bigger vision.
Discipleship is more. It means to be a constant student of Jesus. In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard explains the concept that as we are continuously under the study of Jesus, our inner life is transformed and we become people “for whom his course of action is the natural (and supernatural) course of action.” (page 273) The manifestation of this is that we move from where we are to a place where it is instinct to be, act and respond as Jesus. In our communities, we, as disciples, live out this transformation before others. We pass it on via testimony of our lives. As we become what Jesus calls us to be, we bring others along with us—investing in their journey to become what Jesus calls them to be.
If we choose to accept the vision of discipleship, with all its commitment, loyalty and responsibility, we can begin to move into the fullness of what God has for us as we live out a life of belonging to Him as His disciples.
Could it be that we have created a vacuum where discipleship is the result of joining a group instead of a life lived fully for God? Are our hearts motivated by His grace to move beyond membership itself? We need to create a culture that delivers more than the ‘shoulds’ of the gospel and keeps us from some sort of a false reality that we are ‘doing’ church while getting us off track of  true discipleship. One way to help people live beyond membership is to help our churches become places where safe learning communities are provided, helping people move beyond membership and step into their destinies as true disciples.
Craig Van Gelder, Ph.D., Professor of Congregational Mission at Luther Seminary and Adjunct Faculty Member of The Master’s Institute Seminary, describes the church like this: “The church is not primarily a voluntary organization of members with rights and privileges, but rather a covenantal community of disciples with responsibilities.”
The world needs us to be a people who are interested in more than just going to church to belong to a good group of people. We need to embrace the truth that we are a covenantal community. We have a history of overcoming. We can also overcome the resistance to what has been established in many of our minds.
Where does this responsibility lie? Many pastors are working long hours, meeting countless demands and wearing several hats. They are exhausted and they want to see people of God move beyond mere membership. LCMC Pastor Tom Brashears, of Good Shepherd Lutheran in Irvine, CA sparked this idea of moving from membership to discipleship. He says, “I have a passion to see a clear process provided that creates a discipleship culture within the church.” We were not created to be members only. We were created to love God with our whole being and to be His ambassadors here on earth, representing His love and desire that no one should perish.
What would happen if the church moved to a culture of systematic, intentional, biblically based discipleship training? Robert Walter, who is with LeaderSource, SGA, is a trainer of leaders around the world. He recently shared the need for the church to train and equip “disciples who have the maturity to shepherd the flock.” This is part of the vision that gives fuel to The Master’s Institute School of Ministry. We are honored and excited to come alongside pastors who can benefit from our resources and energy and ask them, “How can we partner with and serve you in equipping disciples in your church.”
In creating a “discipleship culture” as Tom Brashears described it, people have an opportunity to position themselves in a posture of saying “yes” to God. This, along with the learning communities that are formed, and intentional training, can be the greenhouse we need in order to grow and transform our lives with Christ. We are designed to learn by ‘being with’ a leader, a mentor, a teacher. We are designed to learn by experiencing that which we are being taught. We are designed to learn as a community of disciples together.
As His disciples, we join in the adventure of our Lord’s admonition to us, “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Imagine the power of belonging to a group that empowers, emboldens and strengthens the body of Christ so the world will know of the one we call Master.
Sharon Franta recently graduated from The Master’s Institute Seminary (May, 2010), and currently serves as Director for the School of Ministry—a one-year course designed to equip disciples and discover destinies. She longs to see the church be all that God has called it to be: strengthened, empowered and mobilized.
She and her husband Scott live in Roseville, MN and have four children.

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