Have you ever heard someone speak about the need for people to “take ownership in the assembly”? What does it mean? Is it important? Consider the following illustrations:
– A man who attends the local assembly is a skilled cabinet maker. Year by year, he walks past cabinets in the chapel library with the doors hanging off the hinges and never “sees” the need for repair.
– The elders visit a family who has been coming to the chapel for awhile. During the conversation, the couple begins many of their questions with: “We notice that you people…….”
– The church treasurer reports: “Giving to missions and outside ministries is generous, but the assembly general fund is usually in the red.”
Examples could be multiplied. What’s the real message here? Perhaps mismanagement of resources or a lack of communication, but often it’s an indicator that the people lack a sense of ownership in the local work. This does not mean they aren’t part of the body of Christ; only that they are not sure of their place in our local expression of the body of Christ. Note that the above illustrations apply to the building, the assets and the leadership of what we call the church. In other words, those who speak this way see themselves more as visitors than as part of the family. They feel like they don’t belong. They cannot say “my spiritual family.”
Someone will object: “We know that the church is not a building; it’s the people. If these folks are truly saved, and have been received into fellowship, then they have no right to feel this way.” In theory that’s true. But we are dealing here with perceptions, and good leaders care about how things are perceived. Let’s think about this problem, and what can be done to correct it.
The Importance of Perceptions
To begin, the dictionary defines “perceive” as “to become aware of something through the senses,” and perception as “any insight, knowledge or intuitive judgment arrived at by perceiving.” The Lord Jesus often criticized those who did not perceive (or understand) things that should have been clear to them e.g., Mark 7:18; 8:17 KJV). But just as people can be slow to perceive what we think is obvious, they can sometimes be alert to things about which we may be blind! And this takes us to the heart of this matter of ownership in the assembly. Without realizing it, those in leadership may be sending signals that say: “This local church is owned and controlled by a certain group of people, and you are not part of that group; you are not ‘insiders.’” How can this be?
A man once told me, “When I visit a church, I immediately look for two things: Who makes the decisions and who controls the money? That tells me who owns the work.” Not everyone will agree with this or think it a good thing, but it does make one point. People have their own criteria for deciding who “owns” things, and very often those criteria are taken from the world. That may not matter to us, but when it becomes a barrier that prevents young believers or new people from getting involved and growing, it should matter.
The Church has no Caste System The true New Testament assembly is not a democracy, but an equal brotherhood of believers with older, mature men leading as undershepherds accountable to Christ. It is also a family in which the members share an unlimited liability for one another. There are no “second class” family members. Certainly a mature believer will give and serve “as unto the Lord,” as the “What’s in it fo me?” attitude of the world gives way to Christ-centered fellowship and service.
But must the primary growth of the church come through attracting Christians who are already mature? Despite the baggage they may bring, discipling new Christians and immature Christians must be a big part of our work. An essential part of that process is to absorb them into the heart of family life in the assembly. Though they cannot lead and their serving may be sketchy for awhile, they quickly sense whether or not they are accepted by the “regulars” as true family members.
The Practical Side
What are some practical things that contribute to a sense of ownership in the local work, a feeling of belonging to the family? To name just a few:
– Being known by name especially to those in leadership) [You matter to us]
– A voice (input) in decision making [Your thoughts matter to us]
– Tangible (not just theological) evidences of love. [We honestly care about you]
– Discovery of gift and participation in a significant ministry [We need you]
– Being appreciated [We thank the Lord for you]
– Receiving occasional visits from the elders. [You are worth sacrificing for]
– Being included in “what’s happening” [ You are part of the group]
– Having unfamiliar terms and expressions explained [We want you to be “in the know”]
I remember the testimony of a couple who had come to our assembly as a young family from the midwest. The wife related the story: “We planned to visit each Bible believing church in the area once. Our first Sunday we came to this assembly, a church we were not familiar with. After the meetings, a family invited us for lunch. In the evening there was a baptism and somehow I got involved helping with towels for the women being baptized. Then there were refreshments to serve. Friendships were made, plans for next Sunday, and honestly, we never did get to visit another church. We found a home and stayed.”
To use an analogy, owners of a house will sacrifice energy and resources; visitors will be reluctant to build in someone else’s house. Owners will not drift off; visitors will. Owners have incentive to endure hardship that comes with the work; visitors don’t.
Elders can play a major part in this goal of helping people make the transition from outsiders to “owners.” But it may require some sacrifice, like letting go of things that younger or newer believers can do. Change is never comfortable and long established traditions resist change fiercely. However, the blessings of seeing people move from the outside edge of involvement into a secure place in the local fellowship, is something worth sacrificing for.