I was with a group of folk from another congregation recently, introducing them to NEXT Church and talking about my involvement as co-chair. We got to talking about generational differences when it comes to membership in an institution, particularly a church. Millenials are way less wired toward joining a group in the sense of signing on the dotted line. In many cases they are committed to the organization and will support it through time and money, but they do not see the point of being a member.
I made an offhand comment about churches that have people re-commit to church membership every year. Rather than having someone join and be a member of a church “forever,” there is an annual discernment process. The church leadership re-introduces folks to what it means to be a member (and presumably, the expectations are high), and asks people to consider whether they are willing to devote the time and energy toward that endeavor. As always, non-members are welcome to worship and serve in the community, to receive pastoral care, etc.
There was some predictable backlash to this idea, some of which I can understand. There are times in a church’s life when things just aren’t that much fun. A beloved pastor leaves and the energy declines. There are conflicts and crises. Are we saying it’s OK for people to bail just because things get hard, or because the church is not suiting their needs?
And yes, our culture is one in which ties to institutions and communities are more tenuous than ever. So people are right to ask whether a yearly church membership drive feeds that lack of commitment. OR, does it simply acknowledge the world as it is, not as we want it to be? People can carp all they want about “kids today,” but how does that work as an evangelism strategy?
One comment really grabbed me: What, are people going to get married year by year now?I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to question that analogy. But now, a few days later… No. Just no.
Church membership is not like a marriage. It’s just not. Don’t believe me? Consider this: when a person relocates because of a job, there is often grief over leaving one’s church. But rarely does someone pass up that job because they have made a commitment to their worshiping community. But I know plenty of people who have done that because a move would be bad for their spouse or family.
We use the marriage analogy all the time in the church. Pastors seeking another call feel like they’re “cheating on their church,” like they’re “running around behind people’s backs.” I can relate to the sentiment—there is a zone of secrecy that must be present in these situations, and it can feel inauthentic and sneaky. Still, I find these kinds of metaphors very unhelpful. Pastors are not called to a church until death do they part. They are called for a season of the church’s life. And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there is at least a minimal sense of re-upping each year, in the sense of negotiating and re-approving terms of call.
Why would we not at least consider giving church members the same freedom to reaffirm their commitment to a congregation that pastors themselves have? Why do we get to leave whenever we feel the winds of the Spirit blowing, but church members are on the hook for the rest of their lives?
The real crux of this membership stuff is not people’s lack of commitment. It’s that the church has done a poor job of teaching discernment and discipleship.
Discernment:sensing the presence and leading of God, which goes beyond what makes me happy in the moment.
And discipleship: commitment to following the Way of Jesus, even when it’s hard, even when it means being in a community with people who are sometimes a pain to deal with.
A church that does a good job of this doesn’t need to worry about a mass exodus of people if the interim’s a boring preacher.
And a church that does a poor job of this wants to keep warm bodies (or not-so-warm ones) on the rolls any way they can.
Postage stamp from India honoring the apostle Thomas
I don’t make a regular habit of posting sermons… but I posted the Easter one, and I kinda think that the two sermons are a matched set.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2012
Second Sunday of Easter
“Unless I See”
Poor Thomas, or should I say, “Doubting Thomas”… for indeed that is the name we hear more often. I saw a cartoon this week that features Thomas, hands on hips, saying, “It’s just not fair. It’s not like people go around calling him ‘Denying Peter.’”
It’s a dreadful mislabeling of the man, if you ask me. Thomas only wants what everyone else has already received—a glimpse of Jesus, resurrected. In fact, the word “doubt” does not appear anywhere in this passage if you go back to the original text. The New Revised Standard Version renders Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt but believe.” But Jesus doesn’t say not to doubt. He says, “Do not be unbelieving.”
Doubt, after all, is an element of faith, not a sign of unbelief. And I don’t think Jesus need have worried about Thomas being an unbeliever. Because if Thomas were an unbeliever, he’d be off living his life. He wouldn’t be sitting up there with the rest of the disciples, hoping Jesus might show up again. He is there because this was the place where Jesus was last seen. He’s up there, waiting, wanting to see evidence of this amazing thing that has taken place. Those aren’t the actions of an unbeliever. That’s someone who’s still engaged with the push and pull of his faith. Who’s willing to struggle and wait and watch and hope.
Thomas means the Twin, and as my friend Deryl likes to say when he preaches this text, he’s your twin, if you want him. And I know he is the twin of many of you, because you have told me your struggles and your questions… and yes, your doubts.
He’s a twin that folks would be blessed to have. I’d certainly like to write him into my family tree. Rather than trying to diminish him as many have done with the “Doubting” moniker, today I suggest that Thomas has the most robust faith of any of the disciples. He doesn’t grandstand like Peter: Watch me walk on water! Jesus, you will never wash my feet! Nor does he jockey for position like James and John, who elbow each other out of the way to see who might sit at Jesus’ right hand.
Consider the places we meet Thomas in the gospel of John. We see him in the story of Lazarus (ch. 11), whom Jesus loved, and who is ill, and later dies. Lazarus’s sisters have called for Jesus, who is game to go to Judea, but the disciples say, No, don’t go there, the Jewish authorities want to stone you. That’s the last place we want to be. But Thomas, notably, does not join the chorus of people eager to save Jesus’ skin, and their own. He says, Let’s go, so that we may die too.
We meet Thomas again a few chapters later (ch. 14). Jesus is teaching about God’s house, which has many rooms. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “I go to prepare a place for you… You know the way to the place where I am going.”
And Thomas answers, Umm, actually, we don’t know the way.
We might ding Thomas for interrupting what is one of the more eloquent discourses of Jesus, except that his question is vital if you actually care about following the man.
You don’t ask that question unless you intend to go where Jesus wants to you to go.
So. That’s Thomas in chapters 11 and 14, and then we have chapter 20 to round out our character sketch. We just heard that the first time Jesus appears post-resurrection, Thomas is off somewhere. I preached two years ago that Thomas is the patron saint of the day late and the dollar short crowd. They all get to see Jesus, while he’s off buying Cheetos and Mountain Dew at the 7-11.
But that’s not right, either. Where is Thomas? What is he doing? It seems obvious, doesn’t it? He’s not on a beer run; he’s looking for Jesus. Mary Magdalene said he’s risen, so Thomas is going to find him. He’s certainly not going to cower behind a locked door, quivering with the other disciples for fear of the religious authorities. Thomas is the only one brave enough to be on the outside. So let’s call him Courageous Thomas, not Doubting Thomas.
In the years to come, after Jesus is no longer with them, the disciples will go on to spread the good news and found churches. Thomas has a special distinction: he is the only one of the disciples to have ventured beyond the Roman Empire to spread Christianity. The tradition tells us he established churches in southern India, for heaven’s sake!
Thomas is a man of movement:
“Let’s go to Judea, even if it means our death.”
“I don’t know the Way, Jesus, but I want to know, so tell me.”
“I’m not going to sit up here in the upper room with the door bolted. If Jesus is alive I’m going to go find him and I’m not going to be afraid.”
That search takes him all the way to India, further than any disciple was willing to go.
* * *
You may have heard the story this week about the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker. Booker was coming home the other night and saw his neighbor’s house engulfed in flames. A woman standing nearby screamed that her daughter was still inside, and so without thinking, Cory ran into the house. He and members of his security detail were able to save the woman and others. Cory threw her over his shoulders, sack-of-potatoes style, and ran through the flames. He suffered smoke inhalation and a few second-degree burns, but he and the others are OK.
Now as often happens on the Internet, people decided to have some fun with this and inflate this government bureaucrat into a butt-kicking hero. A twitter feed sprang up on Friday called Cory Booker stories, and they are the 21st century equivalent of the tall tale:
“When Batman needs help, he turns on the Cory Booker signal.”
“When Chuck Norris gets nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light and brings him warm milk until he calms down.”
“Smoke was treated for Cory Booker exposure.”
Those are fun, aren’t they? But the detail that made me sit up and take notice was from an interview Booker gave the next day, in which he said that the decision to go in was a “come to Jesus moment.”
Now, he probably means “come to Jesus” as in a moment of decision. That’s how we normally think about “come to Jesus.” But think about what the phrase means literally. Come. To. Jesus. He went toward a person in grave danger and called it a come to Jesus moment. I hear strains of Matthew 25 in that: For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was perishing in a burning building and you dove in and saved me. That which you did to the most vulnerable and imperiled, you did to me.
Thomas, our disciple with the robust faith, would approve. He was a Come To Jesus kind of person.
* * *
This morning, several of my friends are preaching from the book of Acts, one of the other assigned texts for this day. A few of us were puzzling about how to connect Thomas with this snippet from the early church:
4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common….
4:34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
4:35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Sometimes we press this text into arguments about communism and socialism, and I think that misses the point. The point is this: the church helped create an alternate system in which everyone’s needs were taken care of. Nobody had too much; everyone had enough. Everyone.
It is the church’s job to lift up an alternate vision in which that is possible. It takes a robust faith to do so…
And if Thomas is our twin then we have no choice. Notice he does not say, “Unless I see Jesus walking around in a perfect body with a halo…”
He says, Unless I see the puncture wounds in his hands… unless I see the split in his side. Unless I see that Jesus is a Jesus who suffered the depths of human pain and lived, then what’s the point. Unless I see that Jesus is the one who goes right to the heart of human suffering, taking it on… then I have no use for him.
That’s the Jesus worthy of Thomas’s faith. And ours.