#9 – Authentic Engagement in the Body of Christ: Baptism, Membership, and Discipleship ft. John Neufeld

 In

We had received both the benefits and the troubles that that pattern of community life would bring. You actually have to then teach about what the nature of body life is, you have to talk about what it means to be in Christ. Words like “koinonia” and “oikos” mean something. And to have spiritual gifts that are for the building of the body means something. And we actually had to biblically frame what membership meant. And so we started to do more of that, so that we could actually strengthen the discipleship process – moving people from baptism to wanting to actually be part of our covenant community membership. – John Neufeld

How does your church deal with the interplay of membership and baptism? How does this method work in the greater framework of discipleship?

Join Rob and his guest, John Neufeld, from The Meeting Place church in Manitoba, as they look at what baptism, membership, and discipleship  looks like in that church, and the challenges that they have faced along the way to their current framework.

Topics covered:

  • Membership and baptism, both tied and separated
  • Discipleship
  • Role of the Holy Spirit
  • LGBTQ community engagement
  • Heterosexuality and the church
  • Hierarchy of sin and consequences

 

#9 – Authentic Engagement in the Body of Christ: Baptism, Membership, and Discipleship ft. John Neufeld
BCMB Pastor to Pastor Podcast

 
 
00:00 / 30:26
 
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John Neufeld:
There was a covenant community, that they never anticipated being a large group, of people who were highly committed to the mission.

John Neufeld:
We had received both the benefits and the troubles that that pattern of community life would bring. You actually have to then teach about what the nature of body life is, you have to talk about what it means to be in Christ. Words like "koinonia" and "oikos" mean something. And to have spiritual gifts that are for the building of the body means something. And we actually had to biblically frame what membership meant. And so we started to do more of that, so that we could actually strengthen the discipleship process - moving people from baptism to wanting to actually be part of our covenant community membership.

BCMB Intro:
Welcome to the CMB podcast, Pastor to Pastor. This is a podcast by the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. We want to help equip and encourage pastors, churches and anyone else who wants to listen in and be more effective in their ministry. This is Episode 9, Discipleship and Membership with John Neufeld.

Rob Thiessen:
Hey, everyone, it's Rob Thiessen here, I'm the conference minister for the BCMB Churches, and I want to welcome you to the BCMB podcast by Pastors for Pastors. And we're super excited today to have our first out of province guest, John Neufeld, pastor at The Meeting Place, who's joining us from his office in Manitoba via a Zoom call. So welcome. Great to have you. Great to have you with us.

John Neufeld:
It's a joy.

Rob Thiessen:
Yeah. So, John, just to start the conversation, I think a lot of people in B.C. know you, but some may not. So for our listeners, just tell us a little bit about your own journey, a snapshot of how Jesus Christ called you into ministry and how he's shaped you, maybe even a little bit about The Meeting Place.

John Neufeld:
Ok, well, I get out to B.C. fairly regularly because my son lives there in Langley. And so I've had the opportunity to connect with a bunch of churches in the B.C. area just because I have the joy of being there regularly. I really experienced the renewal of... I'll say, my faith came alive when I was 19 and I had two back to back dramatic experiences where where God really confronted me with my own failings and frailties. A friend of mine, after a long and rather difficult conversation, looked me in the eye and I asked him "what is it you don't like about me so much?" And he goes, "You don't know who you are, you're a fake, you're a fraud, you're a chameleon." And and it kind of blew me away because he named a truth about me. And in naming that truth, the Holy Spirit had an opening in my life that I maybe had not allowed before. And through the passage of Isaiah 6, I just experienced a profound renewal of faith and a call to ministry when it said, "I'm a man of unclean lips and I dwell among people of unclean lips," like, that's my story (as it is all of ours). But I recognized it deeply. And then a few verses later, where he says, "Whom will we send and who will go for us? Here am I send me." And I immediately I knew that was a call to ministry. It wasn't just a call to faith. It was a call to pastoral ministry. And I resisted the idea profoundly. Shortly after that, I had another experience where God very much said, "No, this is what I want for you." And I kind of joked with friends. I said, "Jesus didn't go into ministry till he was 30. I won't either." And they promptly reminded me that Jesus was killed three years later. And if I wanted to strictly follow that plan, it wouldn't be a long ministry. And a couple of years later, I found myself in pastoral ministry.

Rob Thiessen:
And The Meeting Place. That's a unique church to be pastoring.

John Neufeld:
Oh, yeah. If you're not familiar with The Meeting Place, it's a church in the center of Winnipeg. It was established in 1990 by a group of 16 people who just were passionate about evangelism and praying for revival in the city and praying for their friends by name. And out of that grew a church, a church that went from 16 people to 2600 in six years. Dramatic and powerful things were happening. It benefited from being the first Willow Creek Church in Canada, really, in terms of being head over heels committed to a seeker driven methodology or philosophy and having a lot of great creativity in terms of worship and the arts. So, a lot of the growth wasn't actually evangelism, it was bored believers finding a new thing. But there was a tremendous growth of people who came to faith for the first time. And unfortunately, the rapid growth didn't make for a good foundation of leadership. And it rapidly declined also. I came here in 2008, and it was a church in crisis, a church that didn't believe that it could be pastored anymore because it had done so much damage and it was a thousand people and dropping like a stone. And we lost another six hundred people in a short time after that. But the joy of rebuilding trust is, it's a long, hard road, but it's the one that I feel God's particularly called me to. And being in a congregation that's a mess and is ready to make hard changes and pursue the trust rebuild. It took me longer than I thought for that to happen. God works slower than I would like him to, it feels like, but that happened. And now I would say we're a thriving, vibrant church that's completely changed it's demographic. It used to be mostly a suburban church, commuting to the city for a convenient central location. Now, it's mostly an urban church and it's got wide demographics: both age, certainly economics, a lot of people who are homeless or who are living well below the poverty line, and a lot of new Canadians, both economic immigrants and refugees. And it's a church that is still quite committed to evangelism. I had the joy of leading somebody to Christ again last week and watching his very messy life all of a sudden experience the touch of God.

Rob Thiessen:
That's fantastic. Wow. What a great context to be serving in. And you've put in what,it sounds like 12 years already coming up and. Yeah, that's great. So thank you again so much for joining us. And the topic we want to talk about today a little bit is baptism, and membership and the discipleship journey. And of course, our national BFL is, or NFL now, new National Faith and Life Team (CFL, NFL) is is engaged in a study looking at our confession of faith and the article in particular, joining baptism and membership. So at The Meeting Place years ago, the church decided to separate baptism and membership.

John Neufeld:
Actually, that's not true. We never had them connected from the first place. From the very get go, the decision was made to keep them separate. They wanted to keep baptism as a founding corps. They wanted to keep baptism as closely connected to the moment of salvation as possible. And they wanted to establish a high level of commitment on the part of the corps. So, there was a covenant community that they never anticipated being a large group, of people who were highly committed to the mission, in incredibly sacrificial ways. And so it lived that story out for many years. And when I arrived, we had received both the benefits and the troubles that choosing that pattern of community life would bring. And I think most of the benefits were ones that were not as great as hoped for. And most of the troubles were greater than anticipated.

Rob Thiessen:
Wow. OK. So we'll explore that a little bit. But hey, I'll just let's start off with a pretty obvious contextual kind of question for us in Canada. People are resistant or afraid of, for whatever reason, membership in the church. In your experience, why is that? Why are people resistant? Why did they push back to this idea?

John Neufeld:
I would probably first respond with a question, who's resistant? Because "people" is a pretty big category. In my experience here at The Meeting Place and, previously, at another church which also started having separated baptism and church membership right from the beginning. What I found was, it was people who were "Christianized" by the church, who were resistant to baptism and church membership, being connected to the notion of church membership. New believers, who had no experience of the church, did not have a resistance to membership. If anything, they were going: "This is remarkable! Here's a community that actually is going to put feet to its faith. They actually are going to do what they said they would do," because membership properly lived out is, in fact, the fulfillment of body life that's described only baptize somebody. It was only people who had a bad taste in their mouths from the church earlier, who were resistant to the notion of membership.

Rob Thiessen:
Interesting. Interesting. I remember years ago we had some, you know, Mennonite, longstanding Mennonite brethren, friends. And my dad said that they had posed a proposition to their pastor. They felt that their membership in the Mennonite Brethren Church should be listed outside of the context of the local church and become kind of a floating provincial immersion, which is an odd idea, but it comes alongside with that thing that "I want to be a member, but I don't actually care to be accountable in a local church."

John Neufeld:
And I think that that is part of a larger question that's beyond those that have been "churched." There's a sense of individualism that resists the notion of being mutually accountable to each other. And really, body life in the church involves mutual accountability. It's really central to the evangelical and active Baptist tradition, but it's not very well practiced, in many ways, until the chips are down and there's a crisis and we have to hold somebody accountable. Until then, mutual accountability is mostly unpracticed until there's a crisis of sorts. So then the question is, mutual accountability is in fact just discipline, not organic body life where we truly support and sustain each other in a growing way.

Rob Thiessen:
So, tell us a little bit about the recent journey. You took a decision as a church family to reconnect these two things, which, you know, again, in our confessional faith remain connected, so share with us a little bit theological, biblical, societal, sort of thinking around that and maybe how you see or hope to see it impact the life of the community.

John Neufeld:
We, first of all, recognize that one of the big reasons for the separation of baptism and church membership, at the very beginning of The Meeting Place, was less than noble. They just wanted to avoid the problem that they saw in so many churches of a large, inactive membership list. And what do you do with the 40 or the 400 people that are on that inactive membership list who don't return your phone calls, but who are often connected to somebody who's in the church and they go, "if you if you dis-member them, if you remove their membership, this is the last string that's connecting them to Jesus. You can't cut that string." And so it creates internal problems and it creates relationship questions. And nobody even knows who some of these people are anymore. So they successfully avoided that problem, but they created a new problem.

John Neufeld:
And that was, they gave the gift of passive aggressiveness to people who already had that inclination. Because when you have a high bar covenant community membership, people opt in very deliberately. They opt out if they're not all about This vision, This mission, This high level of commitment. And they may opt back in again later. Because it holds people accountable and encourages a high level of commitment, it also means that removing yourself from membership is, in fact, a passive aggressive way of declaring your discontent or your frustration or saying "I'm not living a lifestyle that is consistent with the gospel. And so I'll just stop being a member. And then you've got nothing on me." So, we had a large people who were former members of The Meeting Place who were still actively participant at The Meeting Place. What do you do when you've created that? You actually have to then teach about what the nature of body life is. You have to talk about what it means to be in Christ. I'm not very good with my biblical languages, but words like "koinonia" and "oikos" costs mean something. And to have spiritual gifts that are for the building up the of the body means something. And we actually had to biblically frame what membership meant. And so we started to do more of that, so that we could actually strengthen the discipleship process, moving people from from baptism to wanting to actually be part of our covenant community membership.

John Neufeld:
In the process, we realized that we had some structural problems. We had a series of bylaws and internal practices that were inconsistent with the way we actually behaved. So we had to attend to that. And looking at the two challenges, sort of the biblical education of a community and the legal organization of a community. We said "we need a bridge that brings these two together." And we created a study process. It was open to everybody. We brought in Doug Heidebrecht, who was a member of our church at the time, and he walked us through just reading scripture together. What does this mean? What does this mean? How do we do this? And the inescapable conclusion that we had is: if you are baptized, you are a member of the church. The question is, how are we now going to describe this? And we realized that, legally we were describing membership entirely in structural terms, when biblically it's described entirely in organic terms. And so we started to say, OK, what does it mean for us to reconnect them and now live this organically? So we reconnected them, both in the bylaws and in practice. When somebody is baptized, they're now immediately part of our covenant community membership, regardless where they're at in their spiritual journey. We now have the work of discipling somebody to become more someone who is in the image of Christ.

John Neufeld:
We realize that we have a whole lot of people that were baptized, who now also need this process. So we've been working at a discipleship process that's very relational, helping them want to also say, I want to formally make this commitment, because they didn't have that opportunity properly presented to them earlier. And then, the third thing that we did is we said "we're going to really be serious about what it means to be a covenant community." So every five weeks we get together for a meal. We have meaningful and significant prayer ministry together. We have meaningful and significant sharing of testimonies and bearing witness (This is what God's doing in my life), and we share communion. And we do that very frequently, so that people have an experienced body life of membership, not just a structural understanding of membership.

Rob Thiessen:
So do you do that all as a crowd? I mean, how many people are you there now?

John Neufeld:
How many people is The Meeting Place? We have about 900 to 1000 on a Sunday morning. We have 1800 people that will connect with us monthly, though not that many on any given Sunday.

Rob Thiessen:
So how good of a meal like that?

John Neufeld:
Our covenant community is 250 and our additional number of volunteers is another 250 that aren't covenant community. All of the volunteers and all of the covenant community are invited. And typically, we will have somewhere in the range of 120 to 150 of them there on any given night. And we either do it by Toonie pizza, toonie a slice, or potluck it. We'll do something like that, changing it up every time. But it's a very consistent experience for about two hours. We spend that time together.

Rob Thiessen:
So, it's great to just share about the way that you are trying to put the emphasis back on the organic spiritual reality, a part of the body of Christ. Let's make this a lived experience, like you say. Where does the governance piece come in then? Because, you know, we're also, the church is a society and membership does have impact in that, given also the reality that different churches have different governance structures, but at The Meeting Place, how does membership, baptism and membership relate to that, that governance structure, then?

John Neufeld:
I'll go one step before that. We don't have membership classes, membership relationship. So you are in a one on one mentoring relationship with somebody in the process of being baptized. That mentoring relationship will meet at least nine times. And there have to be at least four or five meetings after you're baptized, one on one with somebody who's actually walking you through the process of becoming richly involved in the life of the church. So it's very relational from the beginning. When we get to the governance, we realize that, legally, the only thing that's required of membership under CRA law is that the membership has to vote on the auditor and receive the audit. That's the only legal requirement. The other requirements are that the organization must have bylaws which it will uphold. And those bylaws have to meet a threshold of legal scrutiny that makes them coherent. But, different congregations have wildly different bylaws and they're in compliance as long as they're following their bylaws. So, we realized that we had wildly out of date bylaws that we weren't in compliance with. So, we rewrote our bylaws so that we could comply with them. We have an elder led church. The membership here, at The Meeting Place, yes, they vote on the auditor and receive the audit as legally required by CRA. They also are required to, or the membership has this responsibility: to discern and appoint its elders and to discern and appoint its lead pastor. And, apart from that, there are no formal structural legal responsibilities of the membership. We recognize that, in order to legally vote on the auditor and bylaws, I believe you have to be 18. So we recognize that somebody who's 16 who got baptized, they just don't do that because they don't meet the legal threshold. We would love for them to be able to do that, and they will when they're able to. Other than that, everything is really organic and the question is not "what will the church do for you?", but "how will you make a difference in the life of this church?"

Rob Thiessen:
That's good. Hey, let's just, for the last few minutes that we have together, dive into a little bit the deep end of the pool here. I know that you guys have been working at The Meeting Place, on some guidelines for ministry with people in the LGBTQ community. And you've shared those with a few other churches, too. That's great. We see some excellent work there and thinking through this. And you are a church there that stands within the Mennonite Brethren tradition, you know, biblical, historical, orthodox view of marriage and sexuality. But as you think about this issue of membership in the body of Christ and discipleship relating to people in the LGBTQ community, there, it's an urban church. How is a ministry happening and how has this approach to baptism and membership in particular, how does it interface with your ministry, with this community? What are some of the challenges, opportunities that you see?

John Neufeld:
For a long time, the historic gay club in the city was kitty corner to our church and we had a fairly significant number of people who were part of the LGBTQ community, who attended our church and a good number of people who are part of Living Waters, also known as Exodus, also known as Journey Canada (under various different names), who also are part of this church. In fact, we housed their offices for quite some time. And so, this has been a really live conversation with us. We probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 people that would currently identify or have formally, publicly, identified as LGBTQ who are part of our church, and really invested. We recognized that in having this conversation, we needed to understand what service and discipleship meant for all of us, as it relates to our sexuality, not just for those who are LGBTQ, because frankly, the biggest challenge for us is not the questions around LGBTQ and following Jesus, it's heterosexual cohabitation and following Jesus. It's heterosexuality actively practiced outside of marriage by dating couples. It's out of control heterosexuality that's really the big issue for the church. We couldn't single out the question around LGBTQ and if we did, it was a form of hypocrisy.

John Neufeld:
What we also realized is we have a high view of scripture and we have a relatively low view of the Holy Spirit. So we hold each other to incredible account on some moral or ethical issues, some questions of character, as believers. Because the Bible gives us the freedom and permission to hold each other accountable, and in fact calls us to, but we're less sensitive to the fact that all of us move at the speed of our responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. And so when somebody wants to get baptized and they're gay, the question is lordship question: "what is God asking you to do next in your life following him? What does your next discipleship step look like?" If that has something to do with your sexuality,then, how can we come alongside of you so that you can live that life faithfully? Maybe it has to do with your finances, maybe it has to do with broken relationships with somebody, maybe it has to do with addiction. And so, if somebody is baptized and they are sexually involved, either heterosexually or homosexually, outside of what we would describe as a biblical marriage between a man and a woman, we do say that there's some limitations on you. You're not able to be in a role of influence teaching or elder ring, leading in this church, because there's a question of how you're embodying the gospel. And those who lead and teach in the church have to embody the gospel in non-visible ways. So far, we haven't had problems with that because people go, "I get that." We have the same conversation with somebody who's got an active addiction to any known substances that are that are having an effect. If you're actively in the addiction, then you shouldn't be teaching and leading. If you're actively in conflict with somebody, you shouldn't be teaching and leading. So by no means are we excluding people, we're holding all of us to account, and the question really is: "What is the Holy Spirit asking you to do next in your walk of discipleship?"

John Neufeld:
And that's really how we've navigated that. So I would describe us as a LGBTQ welcoming church, with the recognition that in order to lead and teach here, you really need to uphold and embody the confession of faith. So, the result is we have lowered the bar, if you could say, for membership. You don't have to behave in order to be a member. What you need to be in order to be a member is to be responsive to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit will get to you on these things. I think we've used a couple of frameworks for this. One is we recognize that the old 'believe behave, belong' framework is not always handled in that order. Some people will need to belong before they believe. That doesn't mean you baptize people that don't have clarity on who Jesus is, but we really need to create communities that allow people to come in to community and experience spiritual growth, from each of those: behave belonging and belief. We also use a centered set boundary to that conversation quite regularly here. Are people moving towards or away from Jesus? And what are the signals that you're sending to others that say, "I have decided to follow Jesus and this is what that means for me now."? We have a lot of conversation about the work of the Holy Spirit in somebody's life and what does it mean to be responsive and obedient to the Holy Spirit. We have a pretty frank conversation about sexuality quite often, and it's been made more challenging, frankly, not by the number of people in our community who are somehow connected to either in terms of affirming or practicing LGBTQ or being allies, but more by the intercultural connections with the new Canadians, who often come from much more culturally or religiously conservative countries than Canada is. And they find themselves in a church that kind of freaks them out. So, we have to be very sensitive to what this means for them as they also seek to become part of our community.

Rob Thiessen:
Right. Right. Yeah. You can see the the interplay of theology and culture and all of that with the mix.

John Neufeld:
For us, one of the fundamental questions we've asked is, "Is there a hierarchy of sin in the Bible?" And we have come to the conclusion that there is not a hierarchy of sin. There is a hierarchy of consequences, though, and we don't see any sin that keeps somebody from the salvation that God offers. But all of our sins have consequences in real time. And they have consequences for how we participate in the life of the community. And when we have that conversation in a really robust way, it actually, in some ways, makes it safer for everybody. It also makes us more sensitive to each other all the time.

Rob Thiessen:
Fantastic! That is so helpful. And we really appreciate the chance to just chat with you a little bit, John, too, as you share your journey with us, and I pray the Lord will continue to grant The Meeting Place, and you in particular, wisdom, discernment and abundance of His loving spirit in your community, to see the transformed lives. And just to hear you share that, you know, on a Sunday just recently, you had the opportunity to lead somebody to Christ, is so encouraging. I think that's a joy that all of us, as pastors who do the teaching work, just would love to have a regular part of our ministry. Right? Seeing people coming out of the darkness, into the light. So, thanks again. We're gonna have to do this again, I think, there's obviously a lot more to talk about.

John Neufeld:
Oh, that would be great and bless you. And, as you're listening to this podcast, I want you to know that we pray regularly for other churches here. And so we pray for our sister churches in this city. We pray for our sister churches across the country. And I think it's really important that we are in prayer for each other, because this is a mission that that is so important, and it will not be done without prayer. It won't be done on your smarts and my smarts. It'll be done in prayer.

Rob Thiessen:
Yeah. And thanks too, John, for your investment in the wider BCMB and Canadian family as you serve on the seminary board and just step up in various areas. Much appreciated.

John Neufeld:
Thank you.

Rob Thiessen:
Hey, thanks everyone for listening for being with us on this BCMB podcast. And look forward to spending another half hour with you coming up in the near future. Thanks. Bye bye.

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Comments
  • Tim McCarthy
    Reply

    Thanks, Rob and John, for a great conversation around this important topic. Lots of food for thought!

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