Acts 2:43-47 reads: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common…Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
This is an account of the early church. What is striking is its excitement and sense of community. It depicts more a movement than the frozen inner workings of a settled institution. Its members betray a life-changing, compelling sense of mission and ministry, one that judges all other interests as necessarily of lesser account.
Consider now our current by-laws regarding membership: “Members are classified as active if they have supported the Church in the prior 24 months through one or more of the following: identifiable financial support, attendance at worship services and/or by showing devotion and loyalty to the Church by participating in other Church support activities…”
Pretty weak tea, I’d say. Its language reflects not a movement born of passion for ministry, but a settled, sclerotic institutionalism that demands little in the way of faith or community.
In studied contrast, I recently conducted a Google-search of U.C.C. by-laws. The first five “hits” came up with startlingly similar results. My favorite was this, from the First Parish Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Yarmouth, ME:
“Upon reception, a candidate shall become a member of the Church, having pledged to attend the regular worship of the Church and the service of Holy Communion and, as he/she is able, to give systematically to its support for current expenses and benevolences, to share in its organized work, and to seek diligently the spiritual welfare of the membership and community.
“In like manner,” it continues, “the existing Church membership shall provide a receptive atmosphere in which each new member may effectively contribute his or her own talents to the enrichment of the Church community. It is the responsibility of each Church member to stimulate and encourage each other in the ways of active Church life, and to celebrate the unique talents each brings to the life of the Church.”
Now which description of church membership strikes you as closest to the early church in Acts 2? Not only does the latter exhort its members to live out an active worship and communal life, but it charges the congregation to welcome and encourage the participation of even its newest members. The idea, in short, is that all members are called to truly active ministry.
I recently contacted the Rev. Don Remick, our Massachusetts Conference Southeast Regional Minister, to get this thoughts on the matter. His response reads as follows:
“I like the language in the Yarmouth Bylaws that you quote. But the language you share from your bylaws is, in my experience, more common among churches. However, you are among many churches who are raising these questions around how folks are selected for leadership positions.
“The direction you are moving towards is the recommended direction of having greater checks and balances on the finances, complete clarity and transparency with the congregation and an expectation that people in leadership positions (particularly those that involve policy making and financial decisions) should be people who actively participate in the life of the church, particularly in worship and spiritual formation. These are no brainers and should be agreed upon expectations.”
As we move forward, and in anticipation of the as yet unscheduled series of congregational meetings/conversations regarding our by-law re-write, it might be helpful to consider carefully Don’s words.
Moving from the old stultified “board culture” of bureaucratic, top-down “management” and toward a new “ministry culture” that seeks to involve all members in genuine active ministry is the wave of the future, though also, ironically, a return to our roots, to the spiritual and communal integrity found within the early church, and as described in Acts 2.
Grace and peace,
Thomas C. Leinbach, Pastor