A pioneering pastor in Beijing talks to a reporter from the Christian Times about the importance of church membership as a means of ensuring that believers receive proper spiritual nurture. The goal of church growth is not simply more people attending the church, but more disciples. He also addresses the phenomenon of lateral movement, or believers moving from one church to another, often due to dissatisfaction with their former church. His own approach of letting go and encouraging one of his congregations to become independent may seem surprising, particularly to those who believe a pastor should keep a tight reign on his flock.
These days, most up-and-coming urban churches in China use a membership and small group model for pastoring. Why do churches use this model? Is it only to make it easier to manage people in the church? Recently, a reporter from the Christian Times website interviewed Pastor Zhang Yongsheng of the Beijing Gospel Missionary Church about this subject. He believes that the Chinese church must imitate Jesus' disciple-making pastoral methods, continually training believers to become disciples, in order to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Beijing Gospel Missionary Church was founded seven years ago, and it already has two meeting places. In order to systematically accomplish its founding vision of "Mission" and "Making believers into disciples," Pastor Zhang recently released one of their meeting places to become its own independent church, giving it its own pastor. Now, other than having the same vision of sharing the Gospel, the two churches are independent.
According to Pastor Zhang, one church having two or three meetings on a Sunday isn't so good, as this way the churchgoers won't receive enough training or care. A church is not just a place to worship on Sundays, but Christian brothers and sisters should meet throughout the week, and be trained in discipleship; otherwise, they won't become spiritually mature.
Therefore, Pastor Zhang decided to make one of the meeting places independent. Of course, a lot of preparation goes into making a church independent, like preparing a pastor, and making sure that the foundation of the brothers' and sisters' faith and spiritual life are mature and solid. When these conditions have been met, a church should become independent. In their context, some brothers and sisters didn't want to leave Pastor Zhang, and hoped he would go preach at their church once or twice a month. But Pastor Zhang believes that a church does not belong to a person; it should always look to Jesus Christ. Thankfully, the brothers and sisters were willing. Pastor Zhang confided that he learned a lot from the process of making the new church independent. He says he is now more humble and committed before God, and that is a beautiful testimony of God's work in his life.
Establishing church membership will give believers the support they need to become disciples.
As for why a church would want to have a membership system, Pastor Zhang believes that the main reason is so members can receive regular care; so they will not just be believers but disciples.
According to Pastor Zhang, many believers have come from other churches. This is called lateral, or horizontal, movement. Although this is unavoidable, it is not a healthy way to increase church attendance. In God's eyes, that does not mean the church is growing, just that people from one church are moving to another. Of course, when people do not agree with a church's vision or the pastor, they must go find a more suitable church. This is an unavoidable, albeit negative, facet of church development; this cannot be the biggest component contributing to church growth.
How can we prevent lateral movement? Employing church membership can effectively solve this problem. Pastor Zhang says that if you become a member of their church, they will take responsibility for caring for you. If you're not willing to become a member, or you aren't willing to commit to a church, a church cannot give you sufficient care. Through church membership, all believers who are willing to commit to the church can be placed in appropriate small groups, so they will receive deeper edification. This is what the Gospel Missionary Church does.
Regarding the next step, Pastor Zhang indicated that people who attend small groups sit in the front during church services. Their church encourages all believers to join a small group, and small group attendees will be better equipped and cared for through pastors and group leaders. Those who do not join the small group but only come to the Sunday services just come and go and do not grow in their spiritual lives.
So, the main goal of church membership is not only to give all members a home, but also to give them timely care and guidance. Also, the goal is to help all members become disciples. If people only attend church services, they'll just be normal believers all their lives. Pastor Zhang emphasized that the point of small groups is not to hold people, but to help all believers become the Lord's true disciples.
A successful church does not blindly pursue an increase in attendance, but an increase in disciples.
In addition, Pastor Zhang mentioned a problem within the church. Churches today focus too much on increasing church attendance; they just want a lot of people at church. Of course we want more people at church, but in God's eyes, the essential component of church growth does not lie in church attendance but in an increase in the number of disciples. However, a believer can't become a disciple automatically, but only through the training and guidance of a church. So, this type of pastoral model is necessary.
Pastor Zhang emphasized, "As long as we do a good job of imitating the Lord's pastoral methods, it is not important whether we have thousands or tens of thousands of people. In the Lord's heart, the most important were the 12 disciples, then the 70 disciples. In His heart, He wishes for thousands of people to become those 12 disciples and those 70 disciples. This is the most important pastoral method for the church, because it was Christ's method, and we should follow Him."
"Pastoring is just like raising a child. It takes time. No child becomes an adult in a second," Pastor Zhang reminds us.
The Lord asked Peter three times, "Do you love me? Feed my lambs." Believers need pastors to care for them with faith and God's love. This is the responsibility that Jesus has entrusted to each church's pastor.
Original article: 北京牧者访谈：中国教会需效法耶稣门徒化的牧养模式
Image credit: by George Redgrave, via Flickr
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