A Sharper Definition To Church Membership
How a small congregation was reinvigorated by making church membership mean something specific for all new members.
After 18 years of ministry, I’ve become convinced that the way to lead a dormant church into exuberant, committed discipleship is not by lowering the bar, but by raising it. Our members are required to participate in at least one specific ministry, attend a weekly Bible-study class, and tithe regularly. We call it “intentional Christianity.”
Bethel’s mission statement sums up the bottom line: “To help people make a positive, life-changing connection with Jesus Christ.” Though that has always been my personal vision for ministry, bringing structure and reality to that vision was not easy.
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church was my first call after seminary. I remember driving by this little white church in tiny, blue-collar Pell Lake, Wisconsin, before our first interview. My wife, Cindy, and I were impressed with the neat and well-kept building. What the synod had written us about the congregation seemed pretty impressive: over 300 members, 98 worshipers each Sunday, and the salary was more than I had ever received before for doing what I loved. But I quickly discovered that most of the 300 members couldn’t be found; they had been baptized years before but were never incorporated into the congregation or taken off the church roll.
Sunday attendance was around 60, and if I wanted to receive my salary, it was pretty much up to me to raise the funds. (They never taught us at seminary how to conduct stewardship campaigns and preach about money.) I was warned by several pastors that this community would be difficult. I learned that the church council used to meet in the bar directly across the street from the church, and that the previous pastor complained that he had to do all the janitorial work.
My greatest concern, however, was that there were no leaders in the congregation. As soon as my predecessor left (after three years), everything fell apart. I made a vow to myself that when I left, there would be biblically knowledgeable leaders in the congregation so that the ministry wouldn’t cease when I left.
My first day at work, I sat at my desk thinking about the enormity of the task and praying for help, realizing that without God’s help I could do nothing.
“You’re from Pell Lake?”
Driving into Pell Lake, population 1,500, you see no inviting skyline, no manicured lawns. Amid fields and farmland are narrow dirt roads, dilapidated homes, and a mud hole that, once upon a time, was considered a lake.
The town is just north of the Illinois border and five miles south of Lake Geneva, a scenic resort community that is a playground for the Chicago rich. Pell Lake was a blue-collar version of Lake Geneva, and for many years, dating back to the 1920s, it was a pleasant summer destination for working-class families. But the town changed as the nation’s economy wiped out countless industrial jobs. Instead of a resort for the working class, people bought the vacation cottages as cheap, year-round homes, and the town slowly developed an aura of indigence. The lake began to die, too.
Today Pell Lake routinely registers the highest rates of alcoholism, sexual abuse, and marital breakups in Walworth County. We’ve earned a bad reputation. One woman, a longtime member of our church, said that years ago she called social services in the county and asked if she could take in a foster child. The official responded rudely, she recalls, saying: “You’re from Pell Lake? We usually take kids from families in Pell Lake. And you want me to give you one?” That’s the community we live in.
Learning to aim higher
I quickly realized our biggest obstacle to effective ministry was that the members of our congregation weren’t motivated and didn’t have a spiritual base from which to exercise their faith. They didn’t know the Bible and didn’t see themselves as Christian disciples. Instead the general attitude was: “What’s in this church for me?”
We needed to go back to the basics Bible study, prayer, fellowship groups, and worship disciplines to mold people into active and committed followers of Christ.
This did not happen immediately. After two years of the pastor being a “one-man show,” I took a leap of faith and enrolled our church in the Bethel Bible Series, a major, two-year discipleship program.
I’m sure some thought I was crazy. It had been hard getting people to commit to a six-week Bible class or small group, how would we get people to commit to the two-year Bethel Series in which students took exams and memorized concepts?
I needed 10 participants in order to hold my first class. But my recruiting was unsuccessful. My deadline was up and I needed three more. “Lord,” I prayed, “I’ve done all I can. If you want this class to happen, please bring me three more people.” In two days, I had all 10 people and we began meeting once a week for two and a half hours of intensive Bible study and discipling.
Slowly our congregation’s attitude began to change. Every week, others enrolled. I learned an amazing lesson: people are more willing to make one long-term, intensive commitment to something like Bethel than they are to smaller, low-commitment programs. I once asked a young man why he was thinking of joining the Marine Corps after high school. “Because they’re the best,” he said. I think that sense of excellence and challenge is part of the reason we’ve had over 100 students complete the Bethel Series in the past 16 years.
Meeting with a dozen folks every week for a two-year period provides a built-in community of growing believers. I disciple these students with a vision of ministry and learn about their lives. It has made my preaching more vital and practical to their everyday situations. These students are the ones I call upon to participate in special worship services. They learn to articulate their faith in public.
Part of their ongoing assignment is to be “undercover greeters.” Each Sunday they greet one person they haven’t spoken with before and introduce themselves. These students become my “disciples” for two years. They develop the confidence to take on leadership and use their spiritual gifts to serve Christ. This class is the number-one reason our congregation has become a thriving community of faith. Members have taken ownership and have become willing to lead new ministries and teach small group Bible studies. (We now have over 30 people willing to lead Bible studies thanks to this intensive program.)
Connecting heart and mind
Intensive Bible studies fit in well in a mainline church because they are intellectual and “non-emotional.” But as I looked at churches that were growing, I noticed that they were churches that addressed the heart and not just the head. What could we offer that would touch people emotionally and still be faithful to our vision to connect people with Christ in a substantial way?
God led me to the answer in 1989. I attended a Cursillo retreat (Via de Cristo, Walk to Emmaus, etc.). It was a life-altering experience, deepening my faith in profound ways. Cursillo was begun by the Roman Catholic Church in Spain in 1948 and has spread to many Protestant denominations. This intensive weekend retreat includes 12 short talks on the basics of the faith, and through drama and small-group interaction focuses on the grace of God. Most of us felt the love of God in a way that was so new and refreshing that we wanted to help lead weekends to provide this experience for others.
More than 100 people from Bethel have participated in these “lay renewal” weekends, and it continues to revitalize our church by developing leaders who work closely with lay leaders from other churches.
Now that Bethel was speaking to both “heart” and “mind,” people became more willing to speak to others about their Christian faith and to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ. We enrolled in the Stephen Ministry program, a care giving ministry in which people learn the best tools from the psychological field and combine them with our Christian care giving resources such as prayer and sharing of Scripture. We now look at Bethel as a “spiritual hospital” where we take people where they are and help them to develop life-changing connections with Jesus.
Developing young leaders is also central to our mission. The church has a comprehensive youth ministry, but there is no traditional rite of confirmation. This is done to avoid youth dropout. The congregation works hard to keep its young people involved throughout the high school years and afterward.
In recent years, the leadership at Bethel realized that Pell Lake had the highest rate of family violence in the county, and we recognized that as important as our youth ministries were, the adults and parents were the main change agents. Bethel has therefore strategically focused on making connections in parents’ lives through worship, Bible study, support groups, marriage enrichment, parenting classes, and a new Celebrate Recovery (from alcohol and drug abuse) program based on the model used at Saddleback Community Church in Southern California.
Higher expectations, higher return
Today there are 200 baptized members at Bethel and some 285 weekly worshipers. Newcomers are immediately welcomed to participate in any of the small-group Bible studies that are active year-round. Over 125 adults are involved in Bible study or spiritual growth groups. All of these meetings are regularly publicized in the local papers, and people from the community and other churches are invited to participate.
Anyone can attend and participate without obligation (a third of our people are not members yet), but once they become members of the church, they are expected to fulfill all the responsibilities of membership. And we take this very seriously. We counsel people not to rush into membership unless they’re ready to commit to the requirements (see “Giving Meaning to Membership,” at the end of this article).
We try not to be legalistic about it. One woman came to me recently and said, “Pastor, I’m having some financial difficulties and won’t be able to tithe regularly anymore.” “That’s okay,” I told her. “We’ll pray that God will meet your financial needs. And let’s revisit this next year.” She didn’t lose her membership status. I was, however, serious when I said we would revisit it next year; I put it down in my calendar to follow through and talk about it again then.
We believe the only way members will take their commitment to the church seriously is if we take it seriously. Too many churches treat membership casually, yet they wonder why their people won’t move to higher levels of commitment. It starts with members feeling that something is at stake, that their participation and contribution truly matter.
Recently, Bethel was honored with an award from our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for being the “Congregation with the Most Effective Discipling Strategy.” We believe that if a small church in a poor community like Pell Lake can have an effective ministry, then any church can.
Rebirth in Pell Lake
For as long as I’ve been in this community, people have looked at the dying lake as a metaphor for the town itself. Something that once was a center for fun, fellowship, and life slowly became emblematic of hopelessness, poverty, and blight. For the past four years, however, Walworth County has been putting a new sewage system in our area. Although this has left the roads and landscape a muddy mess for the present, it gives us hope that great things are ahead.
More people are moving to the community. Some are even building new homes. There’s new life. And now the county is dredging and replenishing the lake, so suddenly there’s also the promise of new life there as well. It’s a parable of everything God has been doing at Bethel Lutheran as well.
We are currently in the process of relocating our church to a more prominent location at a freeway off-ramp. We believe that our leadership development will provide a strong base for the new people we hope to reach in the next few years. That a congregation like Bethel, a church once thought to be dead, has reinvigorated the spiritual climate is a blessing from God.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked Philip about Jesus. For a long time people have inferred the same about Pell Lake. But now, by God’s transforming power, that’s changing.
Giving Meaning to Membership
Those interested in becoming a member of Bethel are invited to a six-session newcomers class, in which they learn about the expectations of a voting member. Membership candidates must commit to the following:
1. I accept Christ as Lord and Savior.
2. I accept a “call” to a specific ministry at Bethel that reflects my spiritual gifts and everyday interests.
3. I am prepared to pledge my tithe to Christ’s work at Bethel. (This may be a two-year process.)
4. I will attend at least one class a year in order to grow as a disciple of Christ.
5. I intend to “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.”
6. I intend to support my fellow members and our pastor.
This article ‘A Sharper Definition to Church Membership’ by Brian Metke was excerpted from: www.christianitytoday.com web site. July 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’