From Members to Disciples

I have never been comfortable with the classic, church definition of a “member” or what the Episcopal Church refers to as a “Communicant in Good Standing.” According to our canons (rules defining how the church operates), a member is someone who is baptized, attends church, gives to the church (is “known to the treasurer”) and who “works and prays for the spread of the kingdom of God.” The Episcopal Church (and most others) have all kinds of forms and reports for counting people and reporting on the spread of the kingdom of God every year.

But are these numbers and reports accurate and helpful in measuring the spread of the kingdom of God?

What about the folks who run the NA and AA groups who never attend a Sunday service at Grace? What about the scout troop leaders? What about the people who make quilts or cook and deliver meals? They would not fit the definition of a “member” of Grace. Some may attend other churches. Most of them are helping to spread God’s love and mercy, hence they are growing the kingdom of God.

Then we have the opposite problem with members of Grace who spread the Kingdom of God through their jobs and their work in other agencies and non-profits. We have church members who are passionate about their service work in Civitans, Rotary and the Exchange Club. We have church members who work as physicians, nurses, and judges. Their efforts may not be a formal ministry of Grace Episcopal Church, but doesn’t their work represent spreading the kingdom of God?

Chances are that this latter group gets at least some of their spiritual formation and inspiration by attending Grace. Shouldn’t formation and inspiration be the objectives of the modern church? How do we count the hundreds who watch our online Sunday worship? Or the hundreds who read this column? Once people are formed and inspired, they need to be sent out. How might the church of the future measure formation, inspiration, and mission?

I don’t think Jesus, or his disciples cared about numbers or counting. They only cared about results. Is someone following the Ten Commandments? Do they have a compassionate heart (another way of saying they have received the Holy Spirit)? Are they doing works of mercy in the world (spreading the Kingdom of God)? Is their concern for the well-being of others? Those should be the focus and objectives of any modern church. Let’s focus on primary things.

The church has focused on membership and attendance figures for way too long. These may provide easy ways for ecclesiastical authorities (e.g. bishops) to talk about and compare things, but they fall way short of measuring true impact. Growing a community of people who care for one another and who have strong, caring connections to the wider community is what we mean by growing a community of disciples. This has been part of our work at Grace these past ten years. I am proud of our community for making the switch.

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