March 18, 2010

The Invitation

When I preach in worship, I end every sermon with an invitation.  It is an invitation to join the church.  Mostly I do this because it's part of my tradition; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has always had an invitation as part of the worship service.

In my not-so-very-large congregation, it is sometimes awkward to issue the invitation.  Some Sundays, I can look out at the congregation, and it is obvious to me that there is no one present who would respond to such an invitation.  Most are already members, and the few who aren't, well, I've talked with them and they either are not ready or do not desire to join.

Yet, despite the awkwardness, and despite my occasional fumbling over the words because of the awkwardness, I still issue the invitation.  I believe it's important for us to remember that one of our most important jobs as followers of Jesus is to be inviting.

Sometimes, though, it's awkward for another reason, and that is that I think that, sometimes, we're not really all that sure what it means to be a member of the church.  Other than the fact that you get a vote when it comes to church business, what does it really mean to be a member?

I've thought much about this over the years.  I've asked other people what they think it means.  And I think I'm finally starting to understand.

To be a member means, more than anything, that you are committed to following the way of Jesus.  In other words, to be a member means that you are a disciple.  In fact, "disciple" might be a better word to use than "member."  We are often asked how many members we have in our congregation, and we often talk about how many members we have.  Pehaps we should, instead, be talking about how many disciples we have.

To be a disciple means that following Jesus is your number one priority.  It means that you have answered affirmatively the one question that is asked when people join the church:  "Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and do you accept him as your Lord and Savior?"  It means that your first priority is no longer following the ways of the world, with its consumerism, materialism, inequality, injustice, and upside-down values.

That is the most important aspect of what it means to be a member of the church.  It is such a radical reorientation of one's life that it is given meaning in the waters of baptism, where one's old life is washed away, and a person is "reborn" to a whole new way of living. 

But there is another aspect of what it means to be a member.  Being a member also means becoming a Disciple, with a capital "D."  It means committing to the work and ministry of this particular congregation, this particular movement within the one body of Christ. 

We do not believe that we are the only disciples out there.  Indeed, our identity statement points out that we are but "part of the one body of Christ."  Too many churches and denominations have insisted that they are the only true church.  We recognize that we have our strengths and weaknesses, and that our own ministry and witness can be enhanced by relying on the strengths of other parts of Christ's body. One who has been baptized in another church, no matter how that baptism took place, is never asked to be baptized again, since they have already been baptized into the one body of Christ of which we all are a part.  Nevertheless, becoming a member is identifying oneself with the mission and ministry of Jesus as it is lived out in the life of a particular congregation. 

So the invitation that is issued each week is an invitation to become a disciple (with a little "d"), and it is an invitaiton to become a Disciple (with a big "D").  I write about this because, this week, these things have become a little clearer for me, and I want to remember them.  And hopefully, as I continue to invite others to "join the church," we will all have a clearer understanding of what that means.

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