Part of the crisis happening in the mainline church is that we’re losing membership. It’s as though we’ve got holes in the hull of our ship and the patches we fashioned years ago have slowly deteriorated, growing from small leaks to very large gaping holes. A couple of the major areas this is showing up is in when we look at worship attendance and giving trends.
As part of my ongoing process of (re)defining what it means to practice evangelism, I want to explore what it means to address the needs of a denomination struggling to sustain a particular way of life, and how it’s important that we ultimately draw distinctions between the practice of evangelism and what it means to recruit new members.
Mike Breen notes, “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (“Building a Discipling Culture, Zondervan Press, 2009). And yet the subtle undertones of all of the talk these days has to do with the decline in membership in our local churches. I want to say from the outset that this is not intended to be a soapbox against numbers. It’s not even meant to be an argument against church growth, per se. The distinctions drawn here are to illustrate that the practice of evangelism and the recruitment of new members are more effectively implemented when they are regarded as two different, and distinct, features of ministry in the local setting.
One could say that it’s in our DNA as United Methodists and Wesleyan Christians to view this as an obvious distinction. It’s been said that Wesley himself reduced the membership rolls of early Methodist societies to distinguish the idea that numbers and faithfulness in commitment are often two different concepts. A major question we face as a 21st Century mostly American institution is, what does it mean to join a church?
David Lowes Watson notes:
Membership in the church is regarded by most churchgoers in the U.S. as a commitment. It is a commitment, however, to the church as it functions in the culture–a place where fellowship can be sought…emotional and spiritual needs met…moral standards can be affirmed…and where God can be worshipped.
As a measure of organizational needs, it’s important to see membership stats as very important. But the question of faithfulness in the living out of the message of faith begs a different response. In other words, membership emphases can only take us so far into constructing a vision of faithfulness in proclaiming and living the gospel story. But when we merge the practice of evangelism with the recruitment of church members, the effectiveness of a church becomes measured strictly by the growth in membership rather than by its faithfulness to proclaiming the good news of the gospel through the words and life of the community.
It’s very important that these two areas of ministry remain separate because it can be very easy to inadvertently mistake salvation found in the good news of the gospel for a salvation found in the church itself. A church centered on fostering a self-centered and self-serving mindset of survival at any cost has inevitably crossed the line in misappropriating the practice of evangelism as simply the recruitment of new members that will sustain the life of the organization. Furthermore, when the recruitment of new members becomes the sole focus of our evangelism, then we inevitably allow the gospel to morph into whatever is attractional in order to gain more members. We refuse people the right to say “no” by not offering the space to refuse the invitation. Recruiting members is very important to meet organizational needs but it must be done so as an off-shoot of what it means to practice evangelism on a larger, communal level.
If evangelism is to be understood as a practice of the church, it must be understood as a practice much larger than that which would seek to simply grow the church numerically. The practice of evangelism speaks to the very nature a community exists embodying the virtues of the body of Christ–generosity to all, radical inclusion, the confession and forgiving of sins, sharing of mutual goods, and a peaceful orientation to the world around us. This is a witness made to the world that is both invitational and faithful.
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