Tag Archives: Mark Wenger

Does Church Membership Matter?

by Mark R. Wenger – Pastoral Team Leader and Pastor of Administration, Franconia Mennonite Church

How does church membership work in Franconia Conference?  How do you become a church member?  What are the requirements and benefits?  What happens to membership when someone stops attending?  What theological understandings underpin church membership? These questions, and more, formed the center of a Faith and Life Gathering of about 30 Franconia Conference credentialed leaders at Salford Mennonite Church on the morning of May 9, 2018.

Framed by Romans 12:4-5, a panel of three pastors led the way into the maze of membership. Nathan Good from Swamp Mennonite Church described their annual membership Sunday where new members are received after a 10-week preparation class, current members re-affirm a membership covenant, and the congregation shares Communion together. This keeps membership and attendance numbers aligned.

Ken Burkholder from Deep Run East Mennonite Church highlighted the importance of a public commitment for becoming a member.  His congregation has a Membership Covenant in the By-laws but stated it isn’t referenced much.  Ken observed a “definite trend” of people who are active in the congregation, but don’t become members.  Others remain members on the books but haven’t been active for years.

Danillo Sanchez spoke about commitment patterns at Ripple in Allentown and Whitehall Mennonite Church.  Typical church membership that grants certain privileges doesn’t fit their context.  Yet in each congregation, participants sign a covenant that highlights three Anabaptist church distinctives.  This annual signing intends to keep commitment current and to remind people what it means to be part of the faith community.

Discussion around tables followed the panel presentation.  A recurring theme: Understandings and practices of church membership are changing.  Earlier, more standard patterns have morphed into contextualized and individualized approaches. Questions that were raised included: can someone who lacks an understanding of core Christian beliefs and practices become a member?  How about someone who is engaged in behaviors considered inconsistent with the Bible or the Confession of Faith? Churches with cemeteries face unique challenges.  Can someone listed as a member still claim a burial benefit ten years after ceasing to attend?  What does church membership mean?  Is it a shell without any filling?  Or an antique no longer relevant? Lots of questions.  Not many answers.

As a point of comparison, I recently joined the Souderton-Telford Rotary Club.  I needed a current member to serve as my sponsor.  Membership dues are payable every month.  I must attend at least two Rotary functions each month to remain a member.

I came away from the Faith and Life Gathering discussion on membership feeling muddled, even conflicted. I agreed with the pastor who said: “We are holding to what we believe, but we’ve become more flexible in our practices.”  But, when does changing practice reveal an implicit shift of core theology?

In my view, church membership and a covenant community remain a worthy investment for congregations.  Jesus and leaders of the early church raised expectations of godly living, while also setting people free from bondage.  A liberating gospel on one side, and covenanted discipleship on the other, are not contradictory.

Congregations that expect a lot of their members tend to be more cohesive than free-for-all associations.  When high-demand churches also offer transformation to participants and engage them in a clear mission, congregations flourish.

Church membership today doesn’t look like it did fifty years ago.  Our congregations are less homogenous; we move around more; accountability feels different.  But the human need for healing and hope, for encountering God, for belonging to a group, and for sharing in bigger mission remains the same.  In my opinion, the vision of church where “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5) remains worthy of our best creativity and commitment.

STEP Pastoral Training Expanding

Pictured: Luc Pham and Khon Tran. Photo provided.

The STEP pastoral training program looks to grow in 2012 by forming two new cohorts of students simultaneously in both Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa. for fall semester.

“Starting two cohorts of STEP students in one year signals another adventure for us,” remarked Mark R. Wenger, STEP program director.  “We are very pleased to see how STEP is addressing the urgent need for basic high-quality pastoral training of those in congregational leadership.”

The STEP pastoral training program emerged in 2004 in response to the need to provide more flexible, non-traditional Anabaptist ministry preparation.  STEP will hold its sixth annual graduation on May 12, 2012 for a cohort of students completing the three-year, part-time program.

The program first expanded from its Lancaster base in 2010 by working together with Anabaptist congregations in Philadelphia.  Those congregations are requesting an additional urban cohort.

Pictured: Fernando Loyola, Daniel Lopez, & Lam Nguyen. Photo provided.

The STEP curriculum is designed for adult learners in part-time study.  Actual ministry practice, coupled with assignments and teaching by experienced pastors, forms the basis for lively learning in community.

Each of the three years of STEP yields ten undergraduate credits at EMU.  Classes meet on Saturdays, once a month.  Students drive to class from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Ohio.

STEP is jointly owned by Eastern Mennonite University and Lancaster Mennonite Conference.  More information.

Leading without fear: being missional Christians in a fear-filled world

(adapted from Mark & Kathy Weaver Wenger’s message at the Pastors & Spouses Appreciation Breakfast on December 6, 2011)

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’”  (Luke 2:10)

Kathy and Mark Weaver Wenger speak about leading without fear. Photos by Tim Moyer.

Fear is one of our deepest instinctual responses from the “reptilian” part of the brain.   To live without fear is unrealistic.   Impossible.  We may as well try to live without pain or suffering.

“Be afraid, be very afraid” – The fear-industry is Big Business that sells us lots of things – insurance, weapons, health products, relationships, consumer products.  Fear, dread, worry, concern, anxiety.  It’s a powerful motivator.

“Do not be afraid”  is specifically mentioned 70 times in scripture.  Some examples:

  • The Lord to Abraham – “Do not be afraid, I am your shield, your very great reward.”  (Gen. 15:1)
  • Moses to the Israelites as the Egyptians closed in for the kill – “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.”  (Ex. 14:13)
  • The Lord to Joshua after Moses’ death – “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  (Josh. 1:9)
  • The angel to Joseph—“Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” (Matt 1:20)
  • Jesus to his disciples:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Fear is usually portrayed negatively.  It’s a bad thing, to be controlled and to be avoided.  We are told to “lead without Fear” and that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”  (1 John 4:18)   But a fuller reading of Scripture gives another twist to the language of fear that we don’t pay much attention to:

  • “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
  • “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17)

Fear God???  What is going on?  This sounds contradictory and confusing.  Is God an enemy or cheat or torturer or tyrant or bully?

We get a sense of the “fear of God” in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis – Aslan is a Lion, the Christ-figure.  His roar shakes the mountains.  Aslan is not a “tame lion” Nor is he a “safe lion.”  But above all else, he is good and he is loving.  He’s the King.

What does it mean “to fear God?”  C.S. Lewis says it is to “feel awe and wonder and a certain shrinking.”  It’s mystery.  It is to acknowledge that God is sovereign and recognize and defer to God’s power, love, majesty, and superiority.  It means respecting, reverencing, honoring God as sovereign and Lord.

Maybe this ancient language of “fearing God” provides a CLUE for “Leading without Fear in a Fear-filled World.”  Being in right relationship with God is the key.  To grasp deep in our souls (deeper than reptilian brain) that God is sovereign, God is the “Untamed One,” the “Not-to-be-played-with-Lord,” of the Universe.  And that God is Good, God is Love.

And that God comes close to us at Christmas.

We can be come immobilized or possessed by terror when we forget God’s greatness and goodness to us in Jesus Christ.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)

In the Bible, God’s words of reassurance, “Don’t be afraid,” often preceded a great event.  How many times have we missed God doing something good or great because we were afraid of something or someone, instead of trusting God?  The angel’s reassurance to the shepherds turned them loose to find Jesus and tell the whole neighborhood about God’s good news.

Take a moment and reflect:  What is a fear that gnaws at you?  What anxiety keeps you from venturing into deeper water with God?  What are you afraid of as a pastor, or as a pastor’s spouse?  What are your co-workers and neighbors afraid of?  What keeps them stressed and up at night?

The arrow of Christmas is pointed directly at addressing and shrinking those fears,  putting them into living relation to God, the Lord of Universe.  The One who comes to us in Christ Jesus to save us.  The One who will never leave us.

A parable: When I (Mark) was five, we lived in Ethiopia. Our family went on an evening picnic with several other families along the Awash River. After supper the grown-ups got to talking; we children raced and squealed in a game of tag. The sun set and dusk began to lower over the African landscape. Heedless in my dashing, I ran off the top of a bluff, tumbling about twelve feet to the bottom of a dusty dry creek bed. When I stood up, it was utter darkness. I could see absolutely nothing. I started howling at the top of my lungs, “I’m blind, I’m blind, I’m blind.”  My dad heard my cries and came running. He couldn’t jump off the bluff; it was too high. So he had to take the long way around. He scooped me up, held me, and took me to the river. He washed my dust-coated eyeballs and I could see again.

Leading without Fear is born by calling out to a great God who in fact is reaching out to us.  Leading without fear is undergirded by the character of God, the words of God – Do not be afraid.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Ps. 23)