The New Members Class at our church has always presented a bit of a challenge to our staff. How do we turn church shoppers – folks who have been going from church to church comparing the quality of children’s programs, rating the pastor’s preaching style, evaluating the ease of entering and exiting the building – into dedicated and contributing members of our community?
One day I was brainstorming ideas for the class with our worship leader when he half-jokingly said, “We should give them the JFK question.” I didn’t know what he had in mind until he continued, “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church!”
That was a radical idea. I am blessed to tell you that I serve a church where many people have that point of view on church membership. As Jesus said, they came not to be served but to serve.
There’s a true story from my church in the 1980’s, when the debate over women’s ordination was in full heat and certain members were threatening to leave. At one point toward the end of the all-male elder meeting, a prominent Atlanta businessman and longtime elder who strongly favored the ordination of women stood up and said, “No matter what the elders decide, there’s only one way I’m leaving this church – and that’s feet first, in a box.”
That kind of concrete commitment to a church is a rare quality in a contemporary church culture where people threaten to leave over the use of drums in worship, the color of the carpets, whether to read from NIV or NRSV Bibles, or if the sermons get a little too boring (not at my church of course). Many of us are whole-heartedly dedicated to our church community – that is, until there’s something we don’t like.
Every church and every denomination has a dark side. Unfortunately, what someone thinks is a dark side, someone else calls shade. Good, bad, better, and worse are relative to one’s perspective, experience, and context. Jesus didn’t say a lot about those factors, but rather, told us how to live in the midst of them when he instructed us to love God, neighbor, and even our enemies. He could have just riffed on the CSNY lyric, “If you can’t be with the church you love, love the one you’re with.”
If church history teaches us anything, it’s that church controversies come and go. You may have been a winner this time around, but don’t gloat because the next decision may not go your way. In the ebb and flow of church politics the question becomes, Can we love one another in the process of exchanging reasons, disagreeing, and just being plain different from one another?
While fashionable throughout church history, leaving one’s church and denomination doesn’t seem to resolve the question about whether we can follow Christ’s command. Wherever we go there will be another controversy waiting for us. If we keep running from God’s call to love those people we disagree with we will eventually end up at the First Church of One. While coming to a consensus at that church might be easy, it will probably make the potlucks kind of a drag. Rather than be tempted into thinking that church is an experience to check off (or “check in” from the comfort of our couch) we need to see it as a community to love, teach, push, and challenge us.
If we are to respond to Christ with the same love and grace that he has shown us, then it means we will need to love those people with whom we disagree and even those who want to do us in. We must come to serve and not to be served.
Rather than hide that fact, we might as well give it to prospective members straight: “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.”