Bethany believes… (January 2012 Newsletter Article)

Inside the January Bethany newsletter are photographs of an important night. On New Year’s Eve, many Bethany folks gathered at the home of one of our community. The hospitality ministry planned a party to burn (a copy of) the mortgage! In 2010, we paid off the mortgage after the sale of the acre to our south. To say this debt-free reality is a blessing is an understatement. Instead of focusing on paying off anything, we can devote ourselves to God’s call on our congregation. But, what is that call? What is our purpose?

Not long after coming to Bethany, I asked to change our website address. So many churches have a bunch of letters with their city behind it as their website. We need our website to be unique because we are unique. Our web address became Bethanybelieves.com.

Without the skip of a beat, the next word was “what” as in “what does Bethany believe.” It’s a fair question; one that I was unwilling to answer until we all had spent some time together. Each person that comes into contact with Bethany Christian Church has his or her own answer to that question. Some discern what we believe by simply walking around our building. Some discover what we believe by investigating our website. Some perceive what we believe by walking past our booth at Tulsa Pride. People are learning about Bethany and seeing for themselves what we believe. And, yet, it may feel like we haven’t answered that for ourselves.

At the end of worship and sharing on New Year’s Eve, we revealed hopes and dreams for our church. One particular dream was that we discern a mission and proclaim it. Others reminded us of a way, an approach that is a part of Bethany’s identity from the very beginning of the church nearly 50 years ago.

Starting with this Sunday, Epiphany, we will explore our 3 important gifts. These 3 Gifts are the foundation for everything this community of faith does and are desperately needed in the world. The Magi, who we celebrate on Epiphany, aren’t the only ones bearing gifts.

Bethany believes…

On Membership and THE Question…

I’ve never been a fan of the term “member” in churches. I have no idea where this began or when it began and because I hate it so much, I’m not going to look it up. (You can look it up if you want. You can call me lazy, too.)

Rubens knew church today...

Rubens knew church today…

I hate this term because it denotes a way of relationships that is counter gospel. Members have many privileges, a few responsibilities and nametags. It’s not how Jesus referred to those following him around. The disciples, as far as I see it, had no nametags, many responsibilities and few privileges.

It occurs to me that however people are labeled, the tendency for a congregation (or any other group of people) to devolve into insider/outsider mentality is there. In Mark 10, we see James and John ask Jesus for an insider seat in heaven. If that’s not “membership,” I don’t know what is.

When I first came to my church, we had someone join at the end of the service. I did it wrong. I didn’t ask the official question. We didn’t sing THE SONG after it happened. It seemed everyone was weirded out by the experience. I learned afterward that the tradition was to sing Blest Be the Tie that Binds. It’s a sweet hymn, for those who know it. I cannot sing it, however. The only thing I hear with that tune is the camp song from my childhood, “Froggy him am a queer bird…” (The camp song itself is problematic, but I digress.)  The Elders of the church, the spiritual leaders of the congregation, and I discussed that official question, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and do you take him as your personal Lord and Savior.” I explained to them that I could not, in good conscious ask the Personal Lord and Savior part. It’s not because I do not see Jesus as my Savior, but because it reeks of modern theology that makes faith purely about the individual and lacks the communal expression of faith and commitment to the gospel. We may be baptized individually, but none of us live the life of faith in a vacuum.

As we discussed the protocol for people joining the church, I asked what would happen if someone wanted to join and couldn’t make a profession of faith. Some elders said that was a deal breaker, others were silent on the issue. I had to ask because even in a new version of the question (that last part is changed to ask “do you wish to serve God here?”), I wonder, how we can expect people to walk up at the end of a worship service and profess faith when the question they are asked is full of insider language

When my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was in formation on the American frontier, it was in retaliation to the requirements of creeds and sectarianism between and among denominations. As our denomination developed over time, we adopted this membership model and profession of faith test to become a member, though not to take communion. (see www.disciples.org/AboutTheDisciples/HistoryoftheDisciples)

I am in no way against public professions of faith. My question concerns our assumptions when we use the term member and ask this question. We no longer live in a time where the Christian faith and language is commonly understood. It may be commonly used, but to say it is commonly understood is coming close to willful ignorance of the world around us. (Some could say it is rarely understood too, but that is another question entirely.) How can we have a set profession of faith when people vary so greatly in how they come to experience God in worship? Can someone know God through Jesus and be a part of the community officially when “Son of the Living God” needs unpacking.

For many Christian communities, becoming an official part of the community comes after extensive study, anywhere from 6 months to a year. I deeply ache for this level of commitment within my free-church tradition. (Free church roughly translates to no bishops.) I also see it as a way that might slap the Holy Spirit in her face! God’s revelation and people’s commitment come in so many ways!

I am seeking the answer to two areas of questions. First, what do we call those who sojourn together in the setting of a congregation? Members? Would it not be more Biblical to call one another Followers of the Way or Disciples? If the Disciples of the New Testament had many responsibilities, how do we understand and proclaim our own? Second, is a designated public profession of faith the marker for belonging? Jesus rejected the legalism of the religious leadership of his day and pushed for the people to proclaim their relationship with God for themselves. How can we encourage people to proclaim their faith authentically and affirm the collective faith of the community?

What do you think?