Florence* always had a prayer request during the Sunday morning service. One of the microphones would make its way to her pew. She cleared her throat to make her confession to the congregation. “I want ya’ll to pray for my live-in boyfriend, Jose. He has not been treating me right. I need help with my kids, and I have several people I am not speaking with. Thank you.” She calmly handed the mike back. People were shocked by her vulnerable honesty during a church service.
Florence had been coming to the church I pastored since 1994. She knew her imperfections and sins very well. She found a women’s Bible study at church that became her lifeline. She connected with other women who were struggling with real-life issues. Leaders and other church members showered Florence with love and support. She found the spiritual home she needed. This was her church.
A few years later, Florence came to my office. She had a smile on her face and a lightness in her step. She’d been thinking about become a member of the church, she said. We sat down at the table in my study to talk about it. She said her children felt at home at the church too. She loved sitting in the balcony or her pew as she worshiped God.
She declared she wanted to become a member.
But there was one problem. She was not going to kick her man out of her home. In Florence’s mind, a piece of a man was better than no man at all. She didn’t think I would ask her to make a tough decision that might leave her lonely. However, I brought up the issue of her boyfriend living in her home. The smile ran away from her face. She dropped her head as I explained the moral obligations of church membership. Florence stopped listening to me. I told her about the new members’ class coming up and invited her to come. She mumbled that she might come. She brought her six children to the meeting. She never brought up membership ever again.
Florence isn’t a rare person. Many churches and leaders who are seriously reaching out with the love of Jesus and welcoming those who are seeking to become his disciples are finding that their membership requirements are daunting. Some potential members can’t accept theological values. James and Shirley couldn’t wrap their heads around the doctrine of the Trinity. They said they would not become members if they had to sign a membership agreement to accept it. Others, like Florence, face a difficult choice between a person they love and the church they love.
A Few Good Disciples
Jesus asked twelve guys to join his discipleship group. He never used the word “membership.” Maybe we need to take that word out of commission for a while. For most people, it has certain baggage that distorts the real issue, which is being a disciple of Master Jesus. The Savior was looking for a few good disciples.
All kinds of people followed Jesus during his three-year ministry on earth. Yet he chose only twelve disciples, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel, chosen as “a light to the nations.” Was there more to it? Did Jesus have discipleship standards? You bet he did! He chose those who were ready to drop everything to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22). He chose them because they were ready to learn from him (Matt. 10). His disciples had to unlearn a lot of bad things and learn Jesus’ way of doing things (Matt. 12:46-50). Jesus invited crowds to follow him, but he had different standards for his disciples.
Discipleship is the process of learning Master Jesus’ truth and doing things the Master’s way. We give up our agenda and our plans because we submit to Jesus’ lordship. The Jesus way, which in most churches is emphasized by way of membership standards, isn’t easy. It requires helping people who have no clue about discipleship to be pruned and redirected from self-centeredness and self-absorption to become God-centered, Jesus-driven, and Spirit-led followers.
The invitation to become a disciple of Jesus, via joining a church, is a significant step along the journey of discipleship. But Jesus doesn’t allow us to choose the road of least resistance. Discipleship begins in a church that is practicing the resurrection of Jesus in all members. “The practice of resurrection,” wrote Eugene Peterson in his book Practice Resurrection, “is the intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in the resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life.” Discipleship isn’t a one-act play but the lifelong drama of dying and rising in Christ.
The Gospel Is a Process
Florence didn’t stop coming to church. She didn’t quit going to her Bible study. She knew she was not ready to make the decision to become a member, but nobody stopped loving her and her children. She still had a place in the family of God at our church. She was still our sister on the way.
Our Lord has not given up on Florence, nor has he given up on any of us. We are not finished products or self-help projects. Instead, we are all being shaped in the Potter’s hands. Florence needed God’s slow patience and a loving community that believed the Spirit is still at work in her life. God’s Spirit was redeeming Florence, allowing her to experience the gospel in new, yet hard ways.
Invited and Included
In the early 2000s, Patty began attending church. She grew up in the church, but life had taken her down some rough roads. She was burned out on religion. She started coming to my church with a family member. She enjoyed the energetic worship, open prayer request time, and the preaching of the Word. She came to my study to share her story. She was living with a man, but she wanted a clean start. We began to meet and I tried to answer her questions.
Soon Patty began attending the same Bible study as Florence. A change was happening in her heart. She talked about joining the church. We discussed the discipleship standards. She was willing to submit to Jesus as her Lord. She knew there was a community in her corner and a Savior who was patient with her. Gradually, the Spirit revealed what she needed to do. She told her boyfriend he had to go because she wanted to be a disciple of Jesus and a member of the church. I saw a woman growing in confidence in her identity in Christ. In 2004, Patty was welcomed into the joys and pains of membership in Christ’s church. In 2015, I had the honor of marrying her to a wonderful man who cherishes God’s workmanship in her.
Did this happen overnight? Of course not. Patty needed the assurance of God’s support through his people, through worship, and through the power of Jesus. When she stood before God’s people and reaffirmed her faith in Jesus, she received the warm embrace of many people who had witnessed the work of God in her. Florence was there too, invited and included. Membership isn’t a destination, but the patient work of God in all of us until we submit to his amazing grace and become obedient disciples.
*All of the names of people in this article have been changed.