Members or missionaries? (Pete Pillinger)

Tuesday, 16 June, 2009

Pete PillingerPeter Pillinger asks whether we want to see members or missionaries.

When asked about success of a church, many people think of numbers. Big churches are seen as success stories, smaller churches, often rural or city centre, seen as 'struggling'. When we do this we reduce the 'members' to 'bums on seats on Sundays' and make the church no more than a religious club. I may be overstating my position a little here but I do not believe the task Jesus called us to is to create churches. Nowhere are we commanded to do this. The word 'church' only occurs three times in two verses of Matthew's gospel. We are called instead to 'make disciples', disciples of Jesus.

Churches, especially those with 'professional' employees (often clergy) have a tendency to dis-empower members. At the worst, 'members' are simply the people who must sit and listen to the professional. Members are those who are there to learn, clergy the ones who are there to teach. Members are those who need pastoral care, clergy are those who provide pastoral care. Members are those who are there to be led in worship, clergy are those who are qualified to lead worship. In some churches these things are written into canon law. This seems to me to be contrary to what Jesus taught and the way he taught.

I do not believe the task Jesus called us to is to create churches - nowhere are we commanded to do this

Jesus made disciples. Disciples are learners and disciplined. They are people of purpose who follow a teacher to learn all they can from him. They are people who are growing in their knowledge of, and ability to, live as their teacher has shown. They are people who pass on their learning to each other. They are people who learn by their experience of doing the things Jesus did. This is what those who the church refers to as 'members' really are – or should be. The primary job of the gathered body of Christians, the ecclesia, the church, is to make disciples of Jesus. Disciples who will evangelise, serve, care for each other and whose life is gathered up individually and corporately into a living act of worship of almighty God; disciples who share the mission of God.

The word 'missionary' has gone out of fashion. To many it is irrevocably damaged by connections with colonialism in the Victorian age. But it simply means 'one driven by and committed to a mission'. In a post-Christendom age we need missionaries not members.

About the author: 

Pete Pillinger has been the Methodist Church's Fresh expressions Missioner and a member of the Fresh Expressions Core Team for the last four years. In September he will become Chair of the Plymouth and Exeter District of the Methodist Church.


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