November 22, 2005

Raising the Bar

1547 page27 capy son graduated from high school a few months ago. As any parent knows, the final year of high school is consumed with countless senior class activities. And as any parent of a senior knows, most of these activities are a direct ?hit? on the parental wallet. You?ve been supporting this person for all these years, clearly anticipating him getting a little thing called a job.

One of the senior year rituals my wife and I performed over the past months was touring the campuses of prospective colleges with our son. This was an education in itself. In addition to learning that you can go bankrupt trying to underwrite a college education, we noticed that the academic requirements for getting into many colleges have been rising along with the costs. Colleges are becoming increasingly selective about whom they let in. They are steadily raising the bar for admission.

This raising of the academic bar is also happening in grade schools, as there is an increasingly higher level of proficiency students are expected to reach. All of this got me thinking (not surprisingly) about the frontline church. Do we need to raise the bar for membership?

1547 page27Consider this: The bar is set high to get into the Adventist Church. At baptism prospective members have to assent to a number of life-changing biblical requirements before stepping into the pool. But once they?ve dried off, a new member can pretty much take his or her membership for granted. Nothing is really expected or demanded once you become a member. Just look around the next time you?re at church and notice the number of members doing little or nothing to contribute to the ?body.? Many churches are filled with consumers, but very few producers.

Some years ago the credit card company American Express, in attempting to differentiate itself from its competitors, came up with a slogan geared to create an air of exclusivity for those who carried its card. American Express card carriers were called ?members,? thus the slogan: ?Membership has its privileges.? Well, in the frontline church, membership has its privileges, but it also has its responsibilities.

A few years ago I noticed our church was filling up fast. We were getting a great crowd on Sabbath mornings. On many weekends we experienced capacity crowds. Crowds can lull you into thinking that the church is successful and doing well. The money is coming in, the place is full, and everyone is happy; of course we?re doing well! It dawned on me that notwithstanding all the so-called success indicators, we were evolving into a crowded church full of spectators. They were taking it all in, but not giving much back. That?s when my associate pastor and I went to our knees in our growing discomfort with what we were seeing.

The Lord showed us that we needed to raise the bar for membership in our church. So standing on the spiritual authority and responsibility that God had given us, we informed the congregation that we were raising the bar for membership for those who were members of this particular congregation. We made it clear that just being part of the crowd was no longer good enough. Each member was expected to be involved in at least two ministries: an in-reach ministry focusing on the ?body? itself and an outreach ministry focused on the community.

Over a two-month period we met with each member of the congregation (youth included) to ensure that each person had found their place to serve. We shared that if a member did not find ministries they were passionate about, they could develop their own. It was amazing to see what happened when we raised the bar and held members accountable for their membership. Overnight (or so it seemed) we moved at least 90 percent of our congregation into active ministry.

Some time later I read that in churches that are growing, members are held accountable to high standards of membership. This goes far past doctrinal standards; it goes straight to the heart of what Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 14 when he raised the bar for membership, mandating that each member of the body be a functional member.

American Express had it right: membership has its privileges. It also has its responsibilities.

Fredrick Russell is senior pastor of the Miracle Temple Adventist Worship Center and Ministry Complex in Baltimore, Maryland.