One of the fascinating results of the crisis the globe is facing at this time is the creative ways local churches around the world have found to offer worship opportunities, sermons, Bible studies, and other forms of community when physical community is restricted by our sheltering at home. We call the necessity of the moment “social distancing.” However, I prefer to call it “physical distancing” and insist that this is a time, perhaps as much as any time in our memory, when we need depths of social connection during our physical distance.
Another phenomenon that is occurring is the number of people who are tuning in to livestream worship services. In many cases, the number of people who are engaged over the internet is larger than the typical average attendance in the local church. There may be several reasons for that, but in some cases it is because there are actually more people who are connected to our churches than just those who show up on any given Sunday morning. That leads me to ask two questions:
What is the effective constituency of your local church?
What are you doing to provide more intentional and ongoing ministry to that wider constituency?
One of the factors that may have unwittingly hindered our awareness of the wider constituency in our churches has been our tendency to count. We have created measures that make it easier to count those who show up, who enroll, or who make a financial commitment to the local church. And we keep a record of members. Membership and presence are valuable and necessary aspects of the work of the church of Jesus Christ. But we are sometimes caught on the horns of a dilemma. We insist on administering the sacrament of baptism to new believers (or at least we should), but we are not always as clear about the difference between being baptized into the body of Christ and becoming a member of a local church.
We understand that baptism is a means of grace. In that moment we give testimony. We take part in an outward sign that speaks of an inward work of grace. Baptism is declarative of what we have come to believe, of who we have committed ourselves to follow. But we also have discovered that, once the journey of following Jesus has begun, we need the tangible and important support of a community of faithful people.
The Church of the Nazarene has made much of membership. We have a covenant for membership—an agreed-upon statement of faith—and we invite folks who have become followers of Jesus to join with us in the mission of God to redeem all of creation. But we also must acknowledge that membership in the Church of the Nazarene is not the same thing as membership in the body of Christ. Oh, they are necessarily connected. But they are not the same.
Our membership covenants, our guidelines for conduct, and our mutual commitment to the mission of God through the Church of the Nazarene are means by which we seek to encourage one another, to disciple one another, to challenge one another, to support one another, in ways that help give credibility to our membership in the global, universal church of Jesus Christ.
Membership in the body of Christ is a gift of grace. No one, whoever they may be, can determine for another whether they are members of that grace-created fellowship in the Spirit. That is a sheer, unmitigated gift of grace—a gift we receive, and a gift to which we respond in grateful obedience to God. Our membership in the body does not require perfection of performance, but it does find expression in increasing likeness to Christ—living like Jesus to the best of our ability. We follow and seek to embody the words of Jesus as he expressed his desires for us in the Sermon on the Mount.
It is here that membership in the local church becomes important to us. Our membership covenants, our guidelines for conduct, and our mutual commitment to the mission of God through the Church of the Nazarene are means by which we seek to encourage one another, to disciple one another, to challenge one another, to support one another, in ways that help give credibility to our membership in the global, universal church of Jesus Christ.
There will be no Nazarene Boulevard in the New Jerusalem! We will be, as we are already, part of the one, glorious church without spot or wrinkle. In our work in the present, however, in the midst of COVID-19 protocols and physical distancing, we are part of a denomination—one among thousands—who have covenanted together to be the most credible expressions of the kingdom of God we may be.
We do not carve ourselves out as exclusive, superior, or so unique that we have no fellowship with other believers in other churches. In fact, in the current environment, we find ourselves in one of those crisis moments when the church finds her best expression when we look after the most vulnerable and needy in our own churches while also giving of the best of ourselves to look to the needs of others who are outside our church and even outside our faith tradition. That is how the kingdom of God at its best has always worked.
The Church of the Nazarene, like all of the world, is experiencing an unprecedented global health crisis. I am observing the members of our churches step up to this crisis with courage, compassion, conviction, and sacrificial love. And I am convinced it will become one of the turning points in Christian history when our participation in local churches will come to mean more to us than we have ever known. We long to be together again. Faces and people we took for granted have become, for most of us, sources of intense longing. We can hardly wait to embrace, or bow, or bump elbows, or fist bump. We just long to be together! And maybe this will become an opportunity for people to realize what a gift it is to be a part not only of the body of Christ in the global church but also of our local body of believers that meets in our building at whatever location, whether in a massive sanctuary or the humble gathering in a home. These local gatherings will become a big deal and will become more meaningful as local expressions of the universal church than we have known in at least a generation. And maybe, just maybe, we can embrace a new understanding that there is more to each of our local churches than those who show up on Sunday morning.
Let’s open our hearts, our minds, our relationships, and our ministries to those outside our churches who need us more desperately than they have known. When the quarantine is over, let’s not return to our cloisters in our local churches. Let’s get out into our wider constituency and take the mission into the communities around us! That is the church at her best!