The worst new church member speech ever

“Take up your cross and follow” can be a hard sell in a consumer culture.

By Amy Butler

Once during a new member class, I started making the chair of deacons nervous. She pulled me aside and said: “Pastor, don’t you think you should tone it down a little? I mean, it’s good to explain what it means to be a church member and everything, but I was thinking that maybe you could focus on more positive aspects of being a member and not make it sound so … hard?”

Our deacon chair was a long-time, faithful church member who had stayed during the bleakest moments of our church’s recent past. Though she would never say it this way, she probably thought it was the most horrible new member speech she’d ever heard.

And she was understandably worried that my serious speech about the expectations of church membership would stem the steady tide of visitors who were bringing new and longed-for life and energy.

But after years of approaching ministry with the idea that the minister’s job is to attract new church members by giving people what they want, entertaining them and making them happy, I was exhausted. And, I’d pretty much decided this consumer approach to Christian community was a terrible idea, because the end result included an even greater list of demands and a church culture that reinforced an “it’s all about me” mentality.

It felt freeing and life-giving to just tell the truth up front: healthy, transforming faith community is hard. It takes significant commitments of time, intention, energy, spiritual practice and money.

And I was not scared to say anymore that this means participating in worship more often than twice a year on Christmas and Easter and giving your money even on Sundays when the sermon is decidedly uninspiring.

So now I tell people all of that in my church membership speech. I also tell them that even at this awesome church that seems so wonderful right now, someone sometime will let them down. It might even be me.

I guarantee that it is 100 percent sure that sometime during your tenure as part of a faith community, somebody at church will say something inappropriate, hurtful or offensive. Or something or someone you care about will get caught in the grindingly slow and inefficient machinery of the church. Or you’ll feel spiritually bored and uninspired on occasion.

The question is not if these things will happen at church, but rather, when.

Because, you see, everybody in this institution is human. Whenever we place the onus on a flawed human institution to stand in for God, we’ll be disappointed by that institution and, even worse, feel like God is the one who is letting us down.

I understand our chair of deacons’ perspective that night. On the surface, content like this can sound counterproductive. But let’s review: we are followers of the one who invited any disciple who wanted to join to “take up your cross and follow,” which is far harsher than any church membership speech I ever gave, and perhaps the worst marketing slogan in history.

Telling the truth about the hard parts of faith in community is freeing. When we have the courage to tell the truth we remember that the institution we call church is not, in fact, God. It’s a messy and fully human place where we gather in expectation of God’s presence and where God sometimes actually shows up.

When I come to worship with my faith community, I’m usually dragging along a whole bunch of stuff. It’s all the gifts God has given me and the ways in which I’ve failed. It’s all my efforts contributed to the healing of the world this week. It’s the hurt I’ve caused and the necessary I’ve neglected. It’s my deep doubts and overwhelming fears, right alongside my tentative hopes for something better.

It’s all of these things, gathered together with the same sort of baggage everybody else has brought along with them.

Instead of slapping on a shiny smile and pretending we’re all perfect, it’s like a sigh of relief to be able to drag everything I carry, everything I am and every bit of holy potential God sees in me, and pile it together with all of yours.

And then to try our best to be the church together: the place where God’s unending love and all-encompassing grace can come to heal the broken places, fill in the gaping holes, breathe life into parts of us long thought dead, and bathe us in courage to go into the world extending an invitation to experience that love and grace along with us.

During which one might even get an opportunity to hear the most horrible church membership speech ever.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.