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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wednesday Festival: The Rule of Membership

This week's Festival post comes from Elsa Peters, who blogs at (im)possible things with God. You may leave comments for Elsa here or follow the link.

The Rule of Membership

Last night, I watched the sun set in Kettle Cove while reading Adam Hamilton's Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched. The view was awesome (as you can see) but this particular book leaves me a little numb. Numb is the wrong word. It just doesn't fit where I am in my faith journey and I can't quite put my finger on why. Nevertheless, it's something I'm required to read as part of my commitment as a Lewis Fellow. Next week, I will make my way to Kansas City where I'll see Hamilton's church. Maybe I'll even ask him a question or two.

For now, I'm musing over what I read about membership last night. Tonight, we'll host a meeting for potential members. We'll do what Hamilton points out that churches do. We'll give them a little background. We'll try not to make it too scary. We'll try to tell them who we are and then make a really soft lob toward asking them to make a commitment. Of course, Hamilton also makes the well-founded point that we don't ask much. So, he tells us what they do in his church. They ask their members to make the following commitment (which I actually cut and paste from the website):
  • To worship regularly.
  • To continue to grow in your faith by participating in a small group study.
  • To serve God with your hands, by volunteering in service to the congregation and the community and world.
  • To give in proportion to your income.
Doesn't sound all that unique to me. He writes in such a way that this provides a formula in the magic method toward reaching the unchurched. Somehow this commitment will speak to them. Maybe but it doesn't speak to me. I'm part of that generation that doesn't like institutions and doesn't want to join anything that sounds remotely like an institution. This sounds like exactly that institution to me. So, you lost me but that's not really his point. He's interested in creating a pathway that creates mature disciples -- but that maturity is going to look differently in each church. That might mean regular worship or tithing, but it might not.

Increasingly, I'm more and more interested in monastic life. I'm interested in the ways that the monks and nuns have chosen to live in the world. I think there is an interesting parallel with those of us that choose to be Christian in today's world. We don't necessarily retreat from the world but we do try to find some way to order our days. We're trying to find some covenant that will hold us accountable. We're trying to understand what it looks like to choose to associate with a particular group of people with a shared set of ideals. That could be an institution. That might work for some but I'm still not grabbed by this list. It doesn't give me a daily orientation of how to live in the world. Instead, I'm more interested in choosing to live by a shared rule as the members of the Iona Community do. When you join the community, you covenant to this five-point rule:
  • Daily Prayer and Bible-reading
  • Sharing and accounting for the use of our money 
  • Planning and accounting for the use of our time 
  • Action for Justice and Peace in society 
  • Meeting with and accounting to each other. 
I know there are churches that are choosing this sort of order. I've seen them though I can't find any of their website right now. For me, it is so much more exciting to know that there is a group of people that has shared in this huge commitment. There is something unique about the commitment we share and there's a group of people that holds me accountable to that rule. Now, I'm not actually a member of the Iona Community. I haven't joined because I haven't been in a space where there are other members in my geographic neighborhood -- but it's the kind of church I dream about leading. It's the kind of commitment that excites me about such an institution as the church. For me, this five-point rule sounds more like the community I understand the church to be. For me, that's what really matters. 


  1. Thanks very much for your reflections. I share your desire for more from the church. I think the problem with Hamilton's approach is that he focuses on getting people into the church and not so much on introducing them to Jesus and the way of Jesus.

    You may be interested in the work of Elaine Heath. She is making the connection between new monasticism and Methodism. Here's a story about her ministry:
    I also recommend you read the book she co-authored with Scott Kisker, Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (

    Elaine will be speaking at the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville tomorrow and on Saturday. Videos of her presentations will be posted at the GBOD web site in a few weeks.

    Steve Manskar
    Director of Wesleyan Leadership

  2. Interesting thoughts.

    There are opportunities to live by the Benedictine Rule and link up with a community in the USA, usually within several hours drive if not closer.

    A "lay member" is called an Oblate. Protestant clergy are welcome to participate as full members. Oblates are of both genders, so one can link up with a community of monks or nuns.

    I'm not familiar with the difference between Benedictines and the Iona community, but wonder if you've ever had a chance to explore this. It sounds very similar ... and you will find a lot of materials/books etc. on living the Benedictine rule.

  3. When I read those two lists, it seems to me that they are basically asking/suggesting the same things only in different words. They are asking for commitment and accountability. I understand the problem with "institution" but if one embraces membership in a church, that church *ought* to offer the same sort of guidance, whether in the form of a *rule* or small groups, or classes, or whatever.

    The problem I seem to come up against at least in my parish is that people don't WANT TO COMMIT. Is that because it's an institution? For my particular demographic I'm not sure it is. I would love to work with a group of folks who are looking for what you describe. Perhaps I need to work on reframing what I think the church offers to attract some of those folks. How do we gather together seekers looking for a life of discipleship if not in church?

  4. While at a monastery last week, I was reflecting on how interesting it must be to be part of a vowed community - and then I realized that I was! After all, we have all made vows at our baptism.

    Our congregational development officer talks about how different generations respond differently to institutions: they build, or support, or destroy, or ignore. So, e.g., If you're targeting people in their 40s, they're not going to be interested in your institution - but they might get really interested in a vision of Jesus as the revolutionary rebel.

    My (admittedly limited) experience is that people show up on our doorstep at vastly different points in their willingness to commit. Some will thrive when presented with a challenging commitment,others will prefer to grow into it.
    How to reach all of these different starting points is not obvious...

  5. Interesting reflection! I'm a vowed member of an ecumenical monastic community, and also part of a small parish that has elements living a shared rule. Our community allows for different levels of commitment depending on how people feel called to live out their faith. For some, the bond of a shared rule with a specific group of people deepens their faith and spirituality. For others, it feels like a prison and they actually grow deeper in their faith by being more loosely associated with the community. We actually had one member who began in vows and rarely participated, but once she was released from her vows and was an oblate (something akin to "friend of the community")she actually participated more often and shared more deeply. For me, being an oblate would never enough, and I was always drawn to the shared commitment of the vows. Other people begin as oblates because they are reluctant to commit, but then decide afterwards that they are drawn being vowed afterall. It's multi-layered and fluid and so can meet people where they are at and adapt as they grow.

    I would echo one of the earlier responses and suggest looking into Benedictine communities (Episcopalian or Roman Catholic are most common) and their oblate program. Usually oblates can be from any Christian denomination. It may be worth checking out several Benedictine monasteries---they are all very different from each other with some being more traditional and others more modern.

  6. Fascinating stuff.

    I sometimes think that the Reformation originated primarily out of Martin Luther's colossal failure to live in community, and that Protestants have struggled to get it right since. (Yes, I do realize that there were other issues!)

    Iona is still pretty individualistic, as the community is spread across the globe. You might also be interested in Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC if you aren't familiar with it.

    Having attended an Ursuline boarding school in grades 7-9, I had a very formative experience of a semi-monastic community, and I frequently worship with the Carmelite sisters where I live now, so I have some sense of the (old!) monasticism. I think that many of the people in my home church have commitments similar to those you describe, but they would be quite put off by their being imposed by/on the church community as a whole.

    I like the multi-layered approach that St. Lyngine's community uses.


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