I spent Monday and Tuesday at the UCC’s Lancaster Seminary. Leaders from Committees on Ministry in Penn Central, Penn NE and Penn SE Conferences gathered for the Consultation on Ministry. It’s an annual event through which Committees on Ministry meet and are resourced for their work overseeing authorized ministers and people preparing to be ordained.
It was an interesting discussion, highlighting how church is changing more rapidly than our systems can quite keep up. Our Conference Minister reports that he now expects to have at least one congregation close every 6 months. The rest of the church — though not facing any immediate threat to its survival but still struggling — is changing just as fast.
In all the flux, there is a real challenge figuring out how to meet rising needs with decreasing resources. A particular difficulty is trying to find a cheaper way to train pastors for very small congregations that most often are unwilling to change but now can not afford full-time clergy. Pastoring a small church at the end of its life might be more taxing, and yet economic pressures demand the church authorize and send pastors with less training and experience.
But my real take away was a somewhat offhand comment made by the Dean of the Seminary, David Mellott, about his finding more hope for the church in focusing on discipleship rather than over-emphasizing membership. His insight struck home for me. People these days, perhaps generationally, appear less inclined or even willing to be “joiners.” And in a church like Old First, where our ministry and program are intentionally designed to be open to all, there admittedly may not be much impulse to join.
Ok, perhaps the last two Sundays, when we had significant votes before the congregation — 1) approving the “Demand the Ban” anti-assault weapon demonstration using our property, and 2) empowering the Elders to begin negotiations toward a Joint Venture Agreement with Community Ventures — make it clear why membership matters. I also hope some of our the folks coming into our community will want, in good time, to take up some of the few leadership positions that our by-laws require membership for.
But really when you think of it, how much does it matter if the church is a 100 or 200 or 400 member institution. Ok, membership size can be a rough metric for the the resources we have for ministry and service. And size could also be a measure of influence. But it’s really only about quantity and not the quality of your influence.
Truly, I wish we were a bigger community… because we could accomplish more, affect more people, directly and indirectly, in a world that needs terribly to be challenged and schooled by communities like Old First. I have a lot of confidence in the influence we could bring to bear in individuals’ live and in our world at large.
But isn’t the number of members more of a corporate, institutional measure? Wouldn’t “making disciples” offer more of a promise about the transformation that Christian faith hopes to occasion? Think about it this way: it’s not how many people we claim, but how much change we can cause in individual lives, in various communities and in the world at large. That’s Dean Mellot’s point: making disciples is more pointed and direct than making members. The latter seems sort of like an outcome, whereas the former is a strategy a local church can take up and run with.
What does Old First do to help us grow and change as individuals and as a community and as a city? Are there things we do — or should be doing — that could make us more loving, compassionate, forgiving, open, caring, justice-seeking, generous, faithful, joyous?
I invite you to think about that with me. And if you have any ideas, tell me, or take them to the leaders or leadership groups in our church that can help us with them. I really think the Dean was right. We’d do well to ask what we should do such to become more intentionally and more effectively an engine for making disciples.
See you in church,