Sunday, November 15, 2015

Phil Kniss: Storytelling and membership

What if the church marked membership like a family?
John 15:1-5, 12-13; Matthew 18:15-22; Romans 12:3-5, 9-11; Hebrews 10:19-25

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In 3 months or so, we’ll have our annual Membership Sunday.
    Without a doubt, it’s one of the more appreciated
        Sunday morning services we do here.
    If we had a Top Ten List,
        it would be in the top three or four,
        along with Easter Sunday, of course,
            and All Saints’ Sunday,
            and our annual Christmas music Sunday,
            and a few others that have become treasured traditions.

    To me, Membership Sunday feels like church at its best.
        Welcoming new people among us is a joy.
            But the real heart of the service are the faith statements,
                which are personal, profound,
                and often deeply moving.
            It’s a sacred time for us.

    But when it’s over, I swallow hard,
        trying to get rid of something that gets stuck in my throat,
            a nagging feeling that something is . . . well, a bit off.
            Seems like we get membership . . . partly right.
        That does not take anything away from the beauty—
            and importance—of that service, mind you.
        Even without my questions answered,
            I would keep doing that service.
            It’s worth it.
            I would just need to keep swallowing afterward.

    I’ll tell you the source of my misgiving.
        Two things, and they are related.
        First, we haven’t really made clear to these new members
            what we think their membership means—
            what we, collectively, say that “belonging” to this body
                will mean for them if they sign on with us.
        Secondly, after they sign on, and we celebrate,
            after we lock the doors and leave on Membership Sunday,
            we haven’t really answered the “now, what?” question.
            What will that commitment mean,
                to them? to us? as we continue down the road?
                How will we nurture their sense of belonging?
                What mechanisms of support and identity-building
                    do we have in place,
                    to help each other keep the commitments we make?

    It’s not that we don’t think about that.
        We even build language into the service to talk about it.

        We ask the new members two questions,
            about their faith in Christ,
            and about their commitment to the body of Christ.
            Of course, the questions are generic.
                And the only reasonable answer is, “I do.”
        And then the rest of us pull out the hymnal,
            and in unison, make a promise to them.
            They are good words,
                even we do forget them before we leave the sanctuary.
            We say this:
                We open ourselves to you . . .
                    in worship, study, service, and discipline.
                We pledge our willingness to give and receive counsel,
                    to offer and accept forgiveness . . .
                We joyfully accept you as partners . . .
                    in the care of our spiritual family,
                    and in our mission to the world.

        Beautiful words.
            Beautiful liturgy.
            And we end with a beautifully sung blessing
                that moves many of us to tears.
                “The Lord bless you and keep you,”
                    we sing to them.

    In no way do I diminish the power of liturgy,
        when it’s well-written and well-performed.
        And this one is.
        It probably has more impact than I give it credit for.

But I still say the liturgy isn’t enough.
    If we don’t also have in place
        plans and ways and means to walk with each other
            in specific practices of discipleship,
        that keep reminding us of our shared identity in Christ,
        and help us grow in the covenant we make with each other,
            then we are not doing enough, it seems to me.
    I think this is something we should work at.

    Some churches have a written membership covenant.
        For whatever reason historically,
            Park View does not have an actual membership covenant.
            A lot is assumed, and little said,
                about what belonging to us means,
                and why it matters.

    But even with a written covenant,
        it will take more than words on a page
            to translate our sense of belonging to each other
            into a real congregational culture
                that grows disciples of Jesus.

I have some thoughts about growing that kind of culture,
    but before I go there,
    let’s revisit this morning’s scripture readings.
_____________________

We heard from Romans 12, that “in one body we have many members,
    and not all the members have the same function,
    so we, who are many, are one body in Christ,
    and individually we are members one of another.”

When the apostle Paul speaks of being members
    he means something different than we mean,
        in our modern, complex, and institutional church.
    If Paul stopped by our church office for a visit,
        and I explained to him how each year the staff
            compiles membership numbers
                requested by our conference and denomination,
                subtotaled by active, inactive, and associate members.
        I think he would scrunch up his face, and scratch his head,
            and ask, “So what does being a member of the body
                have to do with these numbers?
            Who do you send reports to? Why does it matter to them?
            And what in the world is an inactive member?”

    Membership, to Paul, was not a quantity.
        It was an organic metaphor.
    Paul was eloquent in expounding on it,
        to house churches everywhere, like in Corinth and Rome.
    In these churches, they lived like extended families,
        They lived like a real oikos,
            a household who shared life deeply and regularly.
        They ate at each other’s tables,
            and broke bread and shared the cup of Christ, often.
        They listened, discussed, discerned, shared resources,
            and knew each other’s heart as they knew their own.

        They were, in every way, members of each other.
            Members of each other!
            Connected as hands to arms.
            The metaphor made perfect sense to them,
                when Paul wrote that the eye can’t say to the hand,
                “I don’t need you.”
            Because they, in fact, needed each other, to survive!

    We ought to exercise a little humility,
        when we use this metaphor in our contemporary church,
            where people drop in and out so easily.
        Sounds good! But does it ring true?
            Oh yes, we rejoice when people join,
                we feel pain when people leave.
            But rarely does the coming and going
                of one of our 400+ members—
                even the coming and going of our pastors—
                inflict serious injury on the body.

Today we also heard Jesus’ metaphor of vine and branches, John 15.
    There is one vine, Jesus Christ,
        and all of us organically connected to that vine.
        A great analogy, and fitting,
            when our lives are genuinely inter connected to that extent.
        But how, exactly, does a congregation of 400+ branches
            actually live as one plant?
            when the branches don’t know each other’s names
                and sit on opposite sides of a sanctuary?

These are precious, and profoundly true, biblical metaphors.
    But let’s be honest.
        They start to break down in the
            large, complex, and institutional church,
            that’s still predominant in Western Christianity.
    I’m not denigrating big churches.
        I have no problem speaking of Park View as a “body of Christ.”
            Or Virginia Mennonite Conference,
                Mennonite Church USA,
                and even the global church.

    But every step we take away from the oikos,
        the household that functions like an extended family,
        that shares life,
        that worships together at Jesus’ table,
        that walks with each other in our everyday struggles,
        that rejoices in each other’s small victories,
            every step we take away from the church as family,
                as oikos,
            this body metaphor gets stretched a little thinner.

And today’s reading from Hebrews 10 gets harder to implement.
    Where it said, “Let us consider how to provoke one another
        to love and good deeds.”
    Kind of hard to provoke love and good deeds very effectively,
        when we don’t even know each other well.
        This is a job for a family, an oikos.

And Matthew 18 gets almost unintelligible
    when we apply it directly to the institutional church,
        as we have often done, and done poorly.
    This is not a text to help the modern church
        to cut off those who offend us.
    No, if we read it carefully, as an oikos,
        a household that shares life deeply,
        it reads completely different.

    This doesn’t even talk about how the church should handle
        conflict or differences between members.

    The issue is when one family member sins against another.
        They hurt a family member, they wound someone.
        And they are so callous about it,
            they refuse to listen to the pain of the injured party.
        When other family members approach the offender,
            and say, look how your actions
                have injured our sister or brother,
                they refuse to even listen.
        When the whole oikos lovingly brings them this hard truth,
            they still refuse to listen.
            Hear that? They refuse to listen.
            The offender is cutting himself off from the body.
                Relationship is being offered,
                    in the form of honest, restorative justice.
                The offender rejects the relationship offered.
        After which, the church treats them as a Gentile or tax collector.
            That is, they are receptive and hospitable,
                and they demonstrate love in the manner of Jesus.

    Why do we think Matthew 18 is a path to cut-off?
    Clearly, Peter heard it as the opposite.
        He thought Jesus was being too generous.
        So Peter asked for clarification.
        “Jesus, are you suggesting we keep forgiving a repeat offender
            as many as seven times?”
        “Oh no,” Jesus said. “77 times.”
_____________________

So how might a church acting like an oikos, an extended family,
    mark our belonging to each other, as members?

I’m not answering the institutional question here.
    There may well be a legitimate need to count people occasionally,
        to make lists and reports and such.
        Not saying, “Chuck all that.”
    But I am saying there is something far more important here,
        for a church that sees itself as a family, an oikos.

    Families are not bound together by keeping their list current.
        They are bound by stories.

For the church family, there is first God’s story.
    We are all invited to enter it,
        and become part of the story of what God is doing
        to make things right in the world.
    God’s agenda is the church’s agenda.
        So God’s story of salvation and reconciliation and redemption
            is the first story.
            The orienting story.

    But our relationships, as members of each other,
        are also cemented by shared stories.

In fact, we can’t even have a meaningful relationship,
    without being allowed to tell our stories,
    and have our stories heard and received.

Life in an oikos is never in the abstract.
    It is always in the particular.
    It’s about what happened, and what happens.

In our modern families,
    where everyone is off doing separate things—
        going to work or school,
        engaging with neighbors and the marketplace,
        just doing life—
    when they all return at the end of the day,
        the most important relationship-building question is,
        “How was your day?”
    In other words, you have a story.
        I want to be in relationship with you,
            so I need to know your story.
        Asking for your story,
            is asking to be in a meaningful relationship with you.
            It’s an expression of love, of care.
        The day a marriage starts falling apart,
            is the day they stop asking each other, “How was your day?”

I hear from persons who live alone,
    especially those who once shared a household with someone,
        and now live alone,
    that they miss that more than anything else—
        no one is asking for their story.

If we as a church are to be an authentic family, God’s oikos,
    we must make space for, and invite, authentic story-telling.
    We strengthen our bond with each other by sharing stories.
    We are members of each other, as a hand is to an arm,
        if we have invited, and graciously received,
        each other’s story.

At our coffeehouse Friday,
    there was no speech, no sermon, no announcement,
        no group singing, no group prayer.
    It lacked just about everything people expect in church gatherings.
    This was a time for hearing and telling stories.
        And no one had to be told to do it.
    Yeah, we had some good fun and games,
        good food and drink,
        good tunes.
    But all that simply created time and space for the main event,
        which was, people leaning toward each other in conversation.
        And that happened, in abundance.
            Stories were invited, and shared, and received.
            Our membership with each other was strengthened
                on Friday night.

    When we share life together,
        spend time together,
        work and worship together,
        are on mission together in our community,
        we grow in our belonging to each other and to Christ.

    No, in itself, being together doesn’t impart secret spiritual DNA
        that makes us closer.
        Spirituality in me doesn’t rub off on you, or vice-versa.
        It’s not rocket-science. It’s not magic.
    But sharing time together creates a shared story.
        We have a story we both know, because we’re both in it.

And a story calls forth a response.
    When someone listens to my story,
        and asks a good question, or offers an observation,
        it encourages me to tell more of my story,
            and to reflect on it more deeply.
    Thus, my conversation partner becomes, potentially,
        a partner in my growth as a disciple of Jesus.

    The engine of discipleship
        is not theology in the abstract,
        or a purely propositional belief system.
    Careful theological reflection is important.
    It lays a good and necessary foundation.
        But it is not the engine of discipleship.

Discipleship runs on story.
We cannot grow as a Jesus follower
    unless we enter into God’s story of redemption,
        as told in scripture,
        embodied in Jesus,
        and mediated by the Holy Spirit . . .
    unless we joyfully offer up our personal life story
        to that larger story,
    and unless we tell our story to others,
        and listen with them for what God is saying to us.

But when we entrust our story to another member of the body,
    when we say, “Here is the road I am on right now,”
        and, “Here is what following Jesus looks like
            from my spot in the road,”
    when we listen carefully to the voice of the Spirit
        in these members of our body we trust with our story,
    and . . . when we fulfill the same role with them,
        as their listeners and responders,
    we are acting like members of a family.
    We are living like a household of God,
        an oikos of disciples doing life together.
    We are hands and feet and eyes and ears,
        who belong to each other in the body.
    And we are living out the biblical version
        of membership in the body of Christ.
_____________________

Now . . . I’m at the end of my sermon on membership,
    and I’ve spent most of the sermon
        speaking of one particular aspect of membership,
        one essential element without which
            membership loses its meaning.
    I’ve been talking about this aspect for the last 20 minutes,
        and have not once uttered the word
        we usually use to describe it.
    The word is accountability.

    Accountability is all about story-telling.
    Accountability is the ability to give an account.
        To tell an honest story,
            and have it be believed and trusted
            and respectfully engaged with.
        That’s accountability.
        And community cannot exist without it.
    There is no true body of Christ without accountability,
        without a culture of storytelling—
        where the story of God’s redeeming work in Christ is central,
        where our own personal stories are offered up
            in light of that larger story,
        and where we give permission to each other
            to speak into our stories with love and truth and mercy.

I pray that as we at Park View continue our journey
    of learning what it means to belong to each other as members,
    that we will find ways to warmly invite all our stories to be told,
        and to be held up to the loving and searching light of Jesus,
            in whose story, our story finds its truest shape.

—Phil Kniss, November 15, 2015

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