On Membership and THE Question…

I’ve never been a fan of the term “member” in churches. I have no idea where this began or when it began and because I hate it so much, I’m not going to look it up. (You can look it up if you want. You can call me lazy, too.)

Rubens knew church today...

Rubens knew church today…

I hate this term because it denotes a way of relationships that is counter gospel. Members have many privileges, a few responsibilities and nametags. It’s not how Jesus referred to those following him around. The disciples, as far as I see it, had no nametags, many responsibilities and few privileges.

It occurs to me that however people are labeled, the tendency for a congregation (or any other group of people) to devolve into insider/outsider mentality is there. In Mark 10, we see James and John ask Jesus for an insider seat in heaven. If that’s not “membership,” I don’t know what is.

When I first came to my church, we had someone join at the end of the service. I did it wrong. I didn’t ask the official question. We didn’t sing THE SONG after it happened. It seemed everyone was weirded out by the experience. I learned afterward that the tradition was to sing Blest Be the Tie that Binds. It’s a sweet hymn, for those who know it. I cannot sing it, however. The only thing I hear with that tune is the camp song from my childhood, “Froggy him am a queer bird…” (The camp song itself is problematic, but I digress.)  The Elders of the church, the spiritual leaders of the congregation, and I discussed that official question, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and do you take him as your personal Lord and Savior.” I explained to them that I could not, in good conscious ask the Personal Lord and Savior part. It’s not because I do not see Jesus as my Savior, but because it reeks of modern theology that makes faith purely about the individual and lacks the communal expression of faith and commitment to the gospel. We may be baptized individually, but none of us live the life of faith in a vacuum.

As we discussed the protocol for people joining the church, I asked what would happen if someone wanted to join and couldn’t make a profession of faith. Some elders said that was a deal breaker, others were silent on the issue. I had to ask because even in a new version of the question (that last part is changed to ask “do you wish to serve God here?”), I wonder, how we can expect people to walk up at the end of a worship service and profess faith when the question they are asked is full of insider language

When my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was in formation on the American frontier, it was in retaliation to the requirements of creeds and sectarianism between and among denominations. As our denomination developed over time, we adopted this membership model and profession of faith test to become a member, though not to take communion. (see www.disciples.org/AboutTheDisciples/HistoryoftheDisciples)

I am in no way against public professions of faith. My question concerns our assumptions when we use the term member and ask this question. We no longer live in a time where the Christian faith and language is commonly understood. It may be commonly used, but to say it is commonly understood is coming close to willful ignorance of the world around us. (Some could say it is rarely understood too, but that is another question entirely.) How can we have a set profession of faith when people vary so greatly in how they come to experience God in worship? Can someone know God through Jesus and be a part of the community officially when “Son of the Living God” needs unpacking.

For many Christian communities, becoming an official part of the community comes after extensive study, anywhere from 6 months to a year. I deeply ache for this level of commitment within my free-church tradition. (Free church roughly translates to no bishops.) I also see it as a way that might slap the Holy Spirit in her face! God’s revelation and people’s commitment come in so many ways!

I am seeking the answer to two areas of questions. First, what do we call those who sojourn together in the setting of a congregation? Members? Would it not be more Biblical to call one another Followers of the Way or Disciples? If the Disciples of the New Testament had many responsibilities, how do we understand and proclaim our own? Second, is a designated public profession of faith the marker for belonging? Jesus rejected the legalism of the religious leadership of his day and pushed for the people to proclaim their relationship with God for themselves. How can we encourage people to proclaim their faith authentically and affirm the collective faith of the community?

What do you think?

5 responses

  1. great article- I hate membership in churches- I heard of a church in texas that burned the membership roster every year – so people had to committ themselves to be a part of the community each year -this is what Im moving towards – of course im not a fan of committees and boards either – membership conotates “a club” mentality- the first followers of Jesus called themselves “the way”

  2. McClaren’s book “More Ready Than You Realize” deals with this quite well. A suggested easy read for elders. In talking about church members/professions of faith, he tells a story of a guy who played basketball at a church but wasn’t a christian. This guy was never asked about his faith but people assumed he was a christian and began talking about their problems with him. When he decided to join, he said that he heard all the problems that people had, and that if they could be believers then he guess he could be too! This leads to a concept that he puts as Belonging Before Believing.
    Now, how that works against the history of a modern entrenched church, I’ll never know! but hope that could be a conversations starter.

  3. Yup, “membership” is fraught with insider/outsider-ness and very counter to what I understand as the Gospel. Jesus spent most of his time with “outsiders” and at the core of his ministry was acceptance and love. That would work, wouldn’t it?

  4. I think the church has it backwards, quite frankly. We should be measuring the impact that the congregation of God’s people can effect outside our walls rather than counting the bodies inside of them. It used to make sense to think about ways of receiving people into the church while lots of folks were still interested in “joining.” But that clearly isn’t happening any longer and it is arrogant of us to keep thinking in this way. We need to stop worrying about how or if we will receive people into our midst and start trying to figure out how we, as people of faith, can enter into God’s larger community outside our walls and whether or not “they” will receive “us.”

    If we changed our focus, we would be less likely to care how or even if others demonstrate the ability to pass our code of admission because we would be engaging and learning from a world that presents so much diversity to us that our current standards of what it means to love God and neighbor would be completely redefined. We would realize that we aren’t the experts, that we don’t hold the golden key and maybe, we’d come to the realization Spirit is waiting out there for us to join her!

    This is how the early church grew-by being present in a fractured society in ways that were so counter-cultural that it attracted people, lots of people, to the faith. I think the word “disciple” works only if we claim the identity and become teachers and role models for a different way of being in the world, the way of Jesus. Surely, this is where I believe our “responsibility” lies.

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