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?