I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.
Last week I received an envelope from our denomination’s Office of Evangelism which contained a very attractive certificate declaring our church is a recipient of an “Excellence in Evangelism Award.” “Huh,” I thought, “Who would have thunk it?” After reading the fine print, I discovered that the award declares that out of churches of our size (101-250 participating members) for the year 2008 we were in the top 10% for number of additions of new members.
I next checked our records and found we had 23 new members last year—20 of them transferred their membership from another church and 3 of them made first time professions of faith. I guess that qualifies as “Excellence in Evangelism” in our denomination (among churches of our size, in the year 2008, etc. etc.). A cynic might scoff at what passes for “Excellence in Evangelism” in a shrinking denomination like ours, but I’m not cynical. Although it is nice to be recognized—for as much as such recognition is worth, each of these 23 additions last year—along with the 18 we’ve had so far in 2009—is meaningful to me because he or she represents a commitment to follow Jesus as a part of the community of faith that is First Christian Church of St. Joseph.
The letter accompanying the certificate made a point of qualifying what the word “Evangelism” means in such an award. It clarified that awards for additions were not necessarily awards for evangelism, at least not strictly speaking. The paragraph-long explanation is a little wordy and vague, but I took from it that evangelism is really about people making first time professions of faith (new Christians) rather than people transferring their membership from another church. So, I guess we really have an “Excellence in Adding New Members who are Already Christians but Whom were Either Inactive or Dissatisfied in their Previous Churches” award.
Based on what I know about the backgrounds of those who joined last year, here’s what I can tell you statistically:
· 3 made first-time professions of faith;
· 5 moved to St. Joseph and were looking for a church;
· 7 lived in St. Joseph, had belonged to a church in the past but had not been active in some time;
· 8 were active members of another church in town and for various reasons were looking for a new church.
So maybe we deserve an “Excellence in Adding New Members who Made a Profession of Faith, Moved to Our Town, or Felt a Desire to Find a New Church” award. A cynic might dismiss some of these new additions as examples of “sheep stealing” or “church shopping,” but I’m not cynical. For me, each of these people who have chosen to join First Christian Church is a person who was looking to deepen their commitment to Jesus Christ and was led by the Spirit to our church. There are many reasons why a person might go looking for a new church and many reasons why he or she would end up at a particular congregation. I choose to believe that those who have joined our church over the last few years have done so, because our members have made a concerted effort to allow God to work through them in some exciting ways.
Some folks have credited my coming to First Christian as the reason our church is adding new members; I tend to think that is an extreme overstatement. I believe that over the last few years we have done a better job than in previous years of letting people in our community know about the kind of faith community we are. Based on who has joined over the last two years, it is about evenly split between those who visited the church due to our marketing campaign and those who visited because of a direct invitation of a church member. Whether it was through a TV commercial, a postcard in the mail or from a personal invite, people have gotten the idea that we are a special kind of church that welcomes all people and values people of various beliefs coming together to serve God and others. Once they got in the door, another special thing happened—they felt welcome and cared about. Many of the new members have shared with me about their first interactions with church members on a Sunday morning. They felt they were greeted not merely out of politeness but with an eagerness to show hospitality and concern. They felt like this was a church that cared about them and then came to feel that through this community of believers they might be able show care to others in Christ’s name.
So, maybe we should have received an award for “Excellence in Welcoming Strangers and Helping Them to Connect with a Community of Faith.” I think I like that title best of all.
Grace and Peace,