A crisis of commitment? (Simon Goddard)

Tuesday, 3 November, 2009

Simon GoddardSimon Goddard asks whether the Church is facing a crisis of commitment.

One of the identifying features of a Baptist congregation is its understanding of church membership, but as someone involved in a fresh expression of church, it has become clear that our current interpretation of what it means to be a member is not really 'fit for purpose' in our contemporary society.

The meaning of the word 'member' has changed over time. Previous generations commonly understood this word as a reference to a part of the body and were thus more able to grasp the organic nature of the biblical analogy in 1 Corinthians 12. Contemporary usage of the word, however, is now largely restricted to an organisational understanding, for example, in our membership of the local gym. Here the mutuality and accountability implicit within the biblical metaphor is reduced to a financial exchange or even lost entirely.

Also, in a time when people were less mobile, and denominations less ecumenical, being involved in the life of a local church would have been an enduring and essential component of an individual's identity. Now, however, the believer's relationship with church is changing. Indeed, there are people who believe and yet aren't members, and others who participate fully, but are yet to profess faith.

There are some commentators who argue that the problem is due to a wider 'post-commitment culture' and that the churches should be counter-cultural and better at communicating the need for individuals to commit themselves to church membership. In my opinion, however, commitment per se isn't the problem. Whilst loyalty to institutions and organisations may be disappearing, campaigns such as 'Make Poverty History' and 'Stop the Traffik' show that there is still a strong desire to be involved in movements which seek to have a transformational influence upon society.

Let's be concerned less about membership and more about our obedience to the call for us to be missional communities

A healthy growing church community still needs commitment. This, however, is not to be seen in terms of becoming 'members' of an institution, but rather as entering into active 'partnership' with God and his people in the work of the kingdom. This is a challenge to those who are keen to know who is 'in' and who is 'out' – those who want to see church as a 'bounded' or 'closed' set.

The alternative viewpoint is the 'centred' or 'open' set, which is less focused on who has yet to 'cross the line' and more interested in encouraging everyone to move closer to Christ who is at the centre of our life together. This type of church becomes a more attractive and inclusive community whose very life together acts as an invitation to others and a 'signpost' to Jesus. In all our churches, let's be concerned less about membership and more about our obedience to the call for us to be missional communities.

About the author: 

Simon Goddard was ordained as a Pioneer Pastor in 2008 at Lode Chapel, a small Baptist fellowship in rural Cambridgeshire which has planted RE:NEW, an all-age ecumenical fresh expression of church which gathers fortnightly in a variety of ways.

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