Discovering Membership Part 4: Indications and Significance
Welcome to our Discovering Membership course!
The purpose of this course is to get our EBC community reflecting on whether membership may be appropriate for them. To do that, there are a few things that we need to understand about what church is supposed to be about in the first place. We’ll then get on to how we at EBC express that in our particular way of doing things, and finally talk about membership itself – what sets it apart from simply belonging to the church, what indications to look for (that membership might be for you), and the significance of membership in our church’s life.
As a recap on this, please take a few minutes to look at our introductory blog and Parts One to Three (see previous blogs, below).
In this fourth section, we take a look at some indications to look for as we consider church membership.
In our last session, we saw how at EBC we welcome everyone and want people to know that they can belong to our church community even before they believe in God or feel any sense of commitment to the church. We also said we want people to change, grow and be transformed by God’s Holy Spirit as a result of their belonging, and we looked at two very significant milestones each of us can look to on our journey with God - baptism and membership.
This time, we will consider some particular indications to look for when thinking about whether the membership “milestone” has been reached on your own journey. We have already looked at the special case of baptism – itself a public declaration mark of belief and commitment - in some detail last time, so here we will consider some other indicators that should help you decide whether or not you are ready to commit to membership with us.
These are -
? Private disciplines: prayer, study, fasting
? Church as priority: services, meetings and connections
? Serving regularly and joyfully
? Giving regularly and proportionately
? A generous and sacrificial heart
Before we consider each of these indicators, it’s worth reminding ourselves again that they could apply equally well when considering baptism – which is why baptism has historically been considered as the normal way that people were accepted into membership at EBC - give or take a bit of rubber-stamping!
Gathering together at church services and meetings is a wonderful way for us to learn about God together, worship Him together, to celebrate, encourage, build each other up and enjoy the company of friends and like-minded people. One of the great joys about “doing church” is that it gives us the opportunity to re-charge our spiritual batteries as it were – to lift each other and remind each other what following Jesus is all about before we head back into the world-at-large to represent Him in our day-to-day lives.
However, our relationship with God should be based on much more than a once-a-week or so meeting! God is there for us all the time and when we really grasp this truth, when “the penny drops” as it were, we suddenly realise we can talk to God, thank Him, seek His counsel, ask for His help, sing to Him, feel His presence any day of the week and whenever we choose to reach out to Him!
Spending time with God in prayer, reading the bible, or focussing on Him via fasting… these are all incredibly powerful personal disciplines. Whilst we can’t do justice to teaching about them here, what we can and will do is to continue to teach and preach at EBC about them – for establishing our own private spiritual disciplines is a hugely rewarding and significant step on our journey of faith.
Questions to consider – Are you regularly reading the bible? Do you, as the apostle Paul wrote, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6: 18, NIV)? Do you ever fast? Do you have a daily devotional book – do you set aside a time and place to read about and focus on God?
Church as priority
This is a simple one – are you making sure you come to church regularly, giving it priority over the many other things that compete for your time? As we’ve seen, getting together as a community is really important to us at EBC and we have services, church meetings, clusters, Life Groups and “EB3s” (two or three close friends gathering to pray, talk and hold each other to account about things) that provide opportunities for us to do just that.
Within these various gathering we can help each other, hold each other accountable, learn from each other, encourage each other, celebrate together, comfort each other and so on.
Is this a priority for you? If so, it’s another indication that membership might be appropriate for you.
Serving regularly and joyfully
Needless to say, it would be impossible to do all the things we do at EBC without a lot of people serving in a host of different ways. That said, serving should also be a joyful thing – we should be thankful for opportunities to serve others as that’s exactly what Jesus told us to do and demonstrated by His own example.
There are many different ways we can serve and it’s really important that we don’t limit ourselves to thinking about the more public and obvious things. Praying for people, encouraging each other, building each other up, quietly supporting someone in some way… these are all very significant ways of serving and shouldn’t be “done down” or thought less of.
As Christians we are not merely involved but partnered in service with apostles like Paul and Peter, and all the other great disciples and saints of the past generations. We’re servant-partners together here at EBC, servant-partners with other local churches, servant-partners in local causes and causes overseas – and indeed with every Christian. Not only that, but we pass the torch on to the servant-partners of the future. Furthermore, we’re (junior) servant-partners with Jesus himself! Are we behaving like real partners? Are we really serving?
If you can humbly answer “Yes” to that question… you have another powerful indicator that membership might be for you.
Giving regularly and proportionately
As with serving, regular financial giving is obviously necessary for us to do all the things we do at EBC. We are not externally funded except to the extent that we have on occasion sought (and been given) grant funding for some specific projects (for example our Storehouse van). The vast majority of our income comes from the church itself - regular giving from our members and regular attenders, supplemented by letting out our rooms.
Why Should We Give?
It’s very clear from writings in the Old Testament part of the bible that people were to give a “tithe” (a tenth) of everything they had back to God, who ultimately provides everything for us in the first place.
In practice this proved a very difficult Law for people to adhere to – and it still is!
In the New Testament, we find Jesus rebuking teachers of the Law for giving their tithe whilst neglecting justice and the love of God, which Jesus describes as more important:
“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” (Luke 11:42, NLT)
Later in Luke’s account of Jesus’s life, there is a story Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The tax collector is full of himself because he has followed the letter of the law in his giving and fasting, while the tax collector begs God for mercy, knowing he is a sinner. It is the tax collector, says Jesus, who goes home justified before God because he has humbled, rather than exalted himself. (See Luke 18: 9 – 14).
We should always be clear that Jesus, through grace, has done all that is necessary to make us right with God. We should give, therefore, not to “get in” with God by following the rules but because we want to give – as an expression of our love for God and gratitude to Him, and as a manifestation of our desire to love and help other people as Jesus taught us we should.
A desire to give, generously and joyfully, is a significant indicator of our commitment to God. It shows that while we live in a money-centred society, in which most people chase after more and more wealth, we are putting not only our hearts and minds but our wallets into action for the Kingdom of God!
What Should We Give?
The notion of giving a tithe (10%) of our income is really challenging for people. Let’s face it, asking someone (who may never have given regularly before) to consider doing that might seem crazy to them - and their actually doing it a huge leap of faith! It can also be discouraging to people who might be right on the limit of their finances, or even in debt.
Clearly, we want people in debt or struggling financially to improve their situation and through CAP courses and the like we can help them to be better stewards of their finances. God does not want people to be in debt or worrying about money! At the same time, it is still the case that we should give – generously and sacrificially.
Living under grace, not the Law, we should not feel excluded from giving regularly if all we can afford (or believe we can afford) amounts to less than 10% of our gross income (and yes, that’s gross income – i.e. before tax, mortgage, bills, food, pet insurance, treats…).
At the same time, if we have an abundance and can give more than 10%, then happily, under grace, we are not limited to 10% either!
The challenge for each of us is to get before God on the issue and give something - regularly, generously, sacrificially - and to review this as our circumstances evolve. Giving 10% may start as an aspiration, and at another time be a memory as we increase beyond that!
This applies to “windfalls” too – when some money unexpectedly comes our way, do we immediately consider giving a tithe (or some other proportion) of it away? We should do so joyfully!
The point is to make a start somewhere – whether it’s 1%, 5%, 10% or more…. But start somewhere, on a percentage basis, and review this upwards as a priority.
How Should We Give?
At EBC there are a number of ways people make a financial contribution and the way most non-members do this is simply by contributing on an ad hoc basis to the offering basket during services. Actually this accounts for less than 10% off our overall offerings – the rest comes from members and regular attenders on regular giving schemes.
We have two regular giving schemes at EBC. One of these involves a simple standing order so that people can decide on a fixed amount and make a monthly offering automatically, while the other involves a numbered envelope which they pop into the offering. Both schemes enable EBC to claim Gift Aid Tax (subject to the individual’s agreement) which significantly increases the value of the offering and also (by nature of the regularity) allow us to have some certainty over our church finances month to month.
A Generous and Sacrificial Heart
In a sense all of the indicators above point to one thing – that we have a love for God and people! We are called to be followers of Jesus – and throughout His teaching, preaching and personal example Jesus time and again emphasises that loving God and loving people should be our top priorities.
So our private devotional life, our commitment to church life, our service, our giving… all of these things are powerful indicators that we do indeed have a love for God, a love for people and a desire to become more like Jesus. It is, of course, no coincidence that this is exactly the purpose of our church as we saw at the start of this course!
If these indicators are not apparent to you, please don’t worry or be discouraged – you still belong to our church family and you’re still welcome! This course, and these indicators, are just here to help you understand more so that you’ll know when the time is right for you to take the plunge (literally, during baptism!) and commit to membership.
Next time, we’ll explore the significance of membership, and why it’s so very important for each of us to consider.