Scriptures: Matthew 4:18-22 & Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13
A Life of Service and a Life of Generosity (4/4)
Other sermons in this series
As we bring this particular discipleship sermon series to a close, let me start by asking a question, one which may strike some of you as odd or maybe even irrelevant: Are church members and disciples of Jesus Christ the same thing?
Currently, our community of faith has 335 professing members, meaning, 335 persons who have stood before the congregation and publicly professed their faith in Jesus Christ and made a verbal commitment to support the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and Christian witness. Would it then be fair to say that those 335 people are disciples of Jesus Christ? Or is there a difference between church membership and Christian discipleship?
I’ll give you my answer to that question, but first let me ask another one: What do you suppose is a good indicator of church vitality? That is, how can you tell if a church is vital and healthy and, most importantly, building up the Kingdom?
Historically, our frame of reference for church vitality has been the membership roll. An increase in membership has often been seen as an indication of vitality. Conversely, when membership goes down, that’s often been viewed as a sign of decreased vitality. When church membership is the chief barometer of church vitality and health, then it only makes sense that the focus of a congregation would be to do whatever they can to keep those number high, right? If membership goes down, what’s the first question that comes to mind for many of us? How can we get more people here? What do we have to do to get our numbers back up?
Many years ago, I recall seeing a church leadership book entitled something like “It’s not about Membership” or “Membership isn’t the Issue,” or something along those lines. The author’s point was that congregational vitality should never be strictly measured by the number of people on the membership rolls nor by whether membership is going up or down. An increase in membership may indicate vitality, but it’s not a given. Likewise, a decrease in membership may indicate a loss of vitality, but there could be other factors at work as well, none of which automatically mean the church is dying.
With that said, to my first question—is there a difference between church membership and Christian discipleship?—my answer is yes, I believe there is. I don’t believe that membership in a local church automatically denotes discipleship—at least, as we’ve been talking about what a disciple is these past few weeks. Certainly, members can be disciples and disciples can be members, but being a church member doesn’t automatically make one a growing, maturing disciple of Jesus Christ.
So, what are the fundamental differences between the two? Phil Maynard, author of the book, “Membership to Discipleship,” identifies four core differences through the lens of these categories:
- the main goal of the church
- the main role of the church
- the main role of church leaders
- the onus of responsibility for spiritual growth
First, the goal of the church. For church members, the goal is to get people to join the congregation. In other words, to increase the membership roll. For mature disciples, the goal is to create disciples who are increasing in their love of God and neighbor. See a difference in what’s being increased?
Second, the main role of the church. For church members, the role of the church is to keep the existing members happy and satisfied. In every church I’ve served, I’ve had persons come to me a threaten to leave and take their money with them to a different church because they didn’t like what I was doing. Believe me, I get how easy it is to make ministry decisions based on how upsetting something might be to those who are already there and supporting the church. For mature disciples, the role of the church is to provide opportunities and relationships to foster spiritual growth.
Third, the main role of church leadership. Where membership is the focus, leaders encourage members to be involved in church activities. Which makes sense because for them, vitality is tied to the level of activity offered to everyone. The busier the church, the better. The more bulging the church calendar, the better. On the other hand, where discipleship is the focus, church leaders encourage the people to grow in obedience to God and service to others. Their service may or may not be directly tied to a program or activity of the church per se, but that’s OK.
And fourth, the onus of responsibility for spiritual growth. In churches where membership is emphasized, the church assumes primary responsibility for motivating people in their spiritual journey. But for maturing disciples, they recognize the fact that they are responsible for their own spiritual growth and that the church will provides opportunities and encouragement. In the regard, one sign that a congregation is maturing spiritually is that it takes less effort to enlist people in the ministries of the church. I don’t know a pastor who wouldn’t welcome the problem of being inundated with emails that say, “I want to serve in some way or another. I want to do something to help others. Any suggestions?” That’s a challenge I’d love to have!
Well, the purpose of this sermon series has been to answer the simple question, “What is a disciple?” The reason I began today’s message by drawing a distinction between church membership and Christian discipleship is because it moves us in the direction of addressing the Why? of discipleship. Why be a disciple of Jesus Christ? So far, we’ve been talking about what a disciple of Jesus looks like. But it’s just as important to understand what it’s all for. Jesus is very clear with us that following him—truly following— isn’t easy. It involves taking up our own cross….not always having a place to lay our head…dying to self…enduring persecution…being maligned, misunderstood, and ridiculed. And if this is true, then why would someone choose it? Well, that’s why it’s helpful to talk about the Why?, which we’ll delve into in the months ahead.
In addition to the one’s I just mentioned, another challenging aspect of following Jesus is that it means sometimes going where we don’t necessarily plan to go or want to go. Which brings us to the third theme of our definition of a disciple, which is joining Jesus in ministry.
Let’s quickly recap the first two themes in our definition. In response to God’s loving invitation, a disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ who is committed to
- being a part of the body of Christ through a life of worship and a life of hospitality;
- becoming more like Jesus through a life of opening to Jesus and a life of obeying to Jesus;
And now, third, by joining Jesus in ministry.
Notice, again, the natural progression or movement. At first, we simply “be.” We gather with the community and worship together. We get to know each other and welcome new people who come. We invite others to come and experience Christian community. As we grow in our comfort of being with the faith community, we avail ourselves of opportunities to learn about Jesus, to learn about what it means to follow him, and eventually we take steps to order our lives around him, trying to live lives that reflect his presence and his Lordship. And as we get more comfortable doing that, it only makes sense that we would want to put our faith into action. And so, we choose to join Jesus in what he’s already doing in the world around us, and we do this through a life of service a life of generosity.
Remember when Jesus told his disciples-to-be that if they followed him, he’d teach them how to “fish for people”? (Matthew 4:19) Well, fishing for people was what Jesus was all about, and he was inviting them to join him in this wonderful, life-changing endeavor. And the invitation is still being made to each one of us. Are we willing and ready to join Jesus in his ministry to the least, the last, and the lost? If so, then it entails a deep commitment to being a servant and to giving generously of ourselves. Both of these are fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t spend a lot of time talking about them in detail. But allow me a few minutes to highlight a few important points, and I’ll begin with a life of generosity.
A Life of Generosity
In this context, we’re talking about financial generosity. A life of service, which I’ll talk about in just a moment, gets at being generous with our time. But this is admittedly about the manner in which we give of ourselves financially. As you might guess, this entails presenting our tithes and offerings as an act of corporate worship. What we give here supports the ministries of this church, from paying salaries to staff to making sure there’s heat in the building for Sunday school classes.
But there’s another way to be generous which is in addition to what you give here. In Phil Maynard’s words, a life of generosity includes “creating a lifestyle with margins that allows us to respond to the needs of others God puts in our paths on a daily basis.” Here’s a simple way of saying the same thing. Let’s say you choose to give a tithe (10%) to God, and that amounts to $5,000. To “create a lifestyle with margins” is use a portion of that $5,000 to meet the needs of people which inevitably come along throughout the year. For example, you could pledge $4000 to the church, and then over the course of the year, fulfill that pledge by giving $4000 as your Sunday offering. But then you use the other $1000 to meet various needs that come along. For example, you could give to our six United Methodist special offerings. You could give to the UMCOR offerings, such as the one now for disaster relief in Turkey. You could support the girl scouts in our congregation by buying cookies from them. You could help a friend who’s falling behind in their rent. You could giving to that homeless person you see every day at the intersection. Whatever need comes along, if you’ve set aside money from your tithe—what Maynard calls “creating margins,” then you have a built in way of giving that support and showing the love of Jesus Christ.
A Life of Service
Finally, a life of service. This includes supporting the ministries of the local church with our personal time and energy, such as bringing food for the red food pantry whenever we have a food drive. It could also include participating in service projects our church is involved with, such as being a part of the group going down south this summer for the Appalachian Service Project. And it also includes investing yourself into serving persons outside of our church life. Many of you have heard this said, and maybe you’ve even said it yourself. One of the things we often hear from persons who are going on their very first mission project is that they’re excited about using their gifts to bless the lives of those they’re going there to help. But on the trip home they’ll tell everyone that it was they themselves who was most blessed by the trip. They went to bless others but ended up being the most most blessed. Why? Because that’s what serving others does. Yes, it blesses them. But in the economy of the Kingdom, it blesses us just as much.
One more quick thing. As we grow in our discipleship and become mature, the less our serving centers around things we like to do. Put positively, the more open we are to doing what blesses others, even if it’s not something we particularly want to do. So, when an opportunity to serve arises, the question we ask isn’t, “Is this something I want to do?” but rather, “Is this something I’m able to do?” When it comes to living a life of service, for the maturing disciple, I think one’s ability and availability are more important factors than one’s personal preferences.
A disciple is someone who makes following Jesus Christ their priority. It begins by saying yes to him. And by that, I mean admitting my need for him. Specifically, my need to be forgiven and freed from the bondage of sin with which I was born. And trusting in his saving work on the cross and the cleansing of my sins by his blood. And inviting him into my life to be my Lord. That’s where it begins. Begins. New birth is the beginning of a life of discipleship. If it doesn’t go any further than that, they’ll make a good church member. But God has way more in store for us than being church members. So, after saying yes, we follow him and go where he leads us. We commit ourselves to a lifetime of following Christ. To making following him our lifestyle.
We commit to being a part of the church, and we live into this commitment by being a part of the worshipping community as well as welcoming and inviting others into the worshiping community.
We commit to modeling our lives after Jesus, and we live into this commitment by opening ourselves to Jesus. We do that by engaging with our Scriptures through reading and study; through conversation with God (prayer); by participating in small groups or classes or other opportunities to grow in our faith. And then by doing our best, with the help of the Holy Spirit of course, to respond to what we’re learning by obedience to him so that on the inside we’re looking more and more like Jesus.
And we commit to putting our faith into action so that we’re also looking more and more like Jesus on the outside as well. And we live into this commitment by living to serve others, by making it a priority to doing what needs to be done in order for others to experience God’s grace and love, and by using a good portion of our own financial blessings to share God’s love and build the Kingdom.
Discipleship is a life-long journey. It’s something we grow at and become more mature in our spiritual lives as we put it into practice. The Apostle Paul said that God’s goal for his people, the church, is spiritual maturity. Ephesians 4:13 – “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults –to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” Christ is our standard, our measuring stick. By the work of Holy Spirit, may each one of us make it our life’s work and commitment to growing as followers of Jesus Christ.