When you took the vows,
did you read the fine print?
The comedian Flip Wilson starred in his own variety show in the early 1970s. One of his best-known skits was a parody of the church. Playing the Rev. Leroy, Flip was a preacher in "The Church of What's Happening Now."
In one episode, the Rev. Leroy was being interviewed by a news reporter. The reporter asked the preacher, "What church are you a member of?" Flip responded, "I'm a member of the Jehovah's Bystanders." The interviewer, with a puzzled look, retorted, "A Jehovah's Bystander? What is that?" Flip responded, "Well, you see, they asked me to be a Jehovah's Witness, but I didn't want to get that involved, so I became a Jehovah's Bystander."
The audience exploded into laughter - and I laughed, too.
We all may laugh at the humor and parody of the church. But the reality is, when we don't read the fine print of our membership vows, we are at risk of becoming "United Methodist Bystanders."
Membership in the church can sometimes be presented in such a cavalier fashion that members are never called into a life of discipleship. As we leave behind our emphasis on Christmas and move into the Season of Epiphany - beginning with the Sunday following the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus - I invite you to explore with me "The Meaning of Membership" in the next three issues of The Call.
In his book, "The Moral Vision of the New Testament," author Richard B. Hays refers to the Gospel of Matthew as "training for the kingdom of heaven." I love this analogy, because I think we may fail to see church membership as training that transforms parishioners to live in the "heavenly kingdom." It is living here as if we are already in heaven. When we approach church membership in this way, I believe the commitment takes on a whole new meaning.
The words of Matthew 28:16-20, referred to as the Great Commission, helps us understand that Jesus is ultimately concerned with creating a new kingdom that is far different than our present worldview. Hays says it this way: "The way in which Matthew constructs that world may be seen in his representation of Jesus as teacher, his account of discipleship as community formation, and his adaptation of eschatology as a warrant for ethics."
It is at this point that I believe we often struggle as a church. How will my local congregation move me from joining to being transformed into a disciple? I believe a study that highlights the fine print of membership can be a transformational tool. While we must acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is involved in this disciple making, we must never discount the power of teaching.
Jesus understood this, and that is why he exhorts us: "... teach... them to observe all things I have commanded you." We need to stress this with our local congregations and with those who search for the life only Jesus can give. Again, Hays is helpful when he writes, "It follows naturally that when Jesus is conceived as a teacher, the church is seen primarily as a community of those who are taught - which is, of course, the meaning of the word 'disciples.'"
Teachers understand that for a child to be able to read, they must first begin with phonics and picture reading before moving to alphabets. Sometimes in the church, we skip the basics and move too quickly to graduate school. That is why I believe that helping new converts and others understand the meaning of membership is so essential.
In paragraphs 216-221 in our 2004 United Methodist Book of Discipline, the meaning of membership is laid out so clearly that I dare say many of us have never stopped to read it or to use it as a teaching tool. Paragraph 217 begins: When persons unite with a local United Methodist church, they, or, if unable to answer for themselves, their parent(s), legal guardian(s), sponsor(s) or godparent(s), profess their faith in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Thus they make known their desire to live their daily lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. They covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep the vows which are a part of the order of confirmation and reception into the Church.
Let's examine what this really means in the next few editions. Until then, remember your baptism, and look again at your vows.