Friday, August 22, 2008

Church Membership: I Hate the Idea But Know I Shouldn't

The whole idea of being a member of an organization or club rubs me the wrong way, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm a Gen X'er, and we are known for our cynicism and skepticism.

Or maybe it has something to do with my past membership in the Columbia Record Club and the fact that I seemed to always end up paying for Cd's I didn't want because I forgot to send the reply form back in on time. I'm just not sure, but for some reason, I don't like the idea of "joining" or "becoming a member" of something. But here's the problem: I'm a pastor of a church, and I'm supposed to encourage people to "join" in order to "become members." Thus the dilemma.

I became a member of my home church when I was 12 years old after completing a "membership class" with my pastor. His wife would come pick me up each week and take me to the church where I would be ushered into his dark paneled inner sanctum for an hour-long meeting. That was a long time ago, and the only thing I really remember is that the dark paneling and pea green carpet in his office didn't look very good together.

Anyway, fast forward 22 years. I moved back to my hometown after being away from it for my entire adult life. One of my first Sundays back, I visited my home church. When I got there, I was handed an official ballot and told that - because I was a member - I could cast my vote for the next year's church officers. I didn't know two-thirds of the names on the ballot and had not been active in the church for almost 20 years. But I voted anyway. I voted for the people I thought had the coolest names and wrote in several names like "Bart Simpson" and "Hugh Hefner." Those two didn't get elected to any official church positions, but a few people whose morals rival theirs did. (I'll write a blog someday about the horrors of congregational rule, but I digress.) Obviously, this only served to feed my cynicism regarding church membership.

So, now I'm a pastor of a church, and I'm recognizing that I need to address the issue of membership here. The main problem in most churches is that membership privileges have been reduced merely to voting privileges. "If you want a say in how things are run around here, then you'd better become a member." Church membership has been reduced more to a business position than to a spiritual position, and if we're going to do membership right at The Foothills, then we have to infuse new meaning and a renewed spiritual significance into it.

So, how does a church membership skeptic lead the charge? Well, as the Lord often does, He directed my attention to a resource that has proven to be helpful. I regularly read a blog from a man known as The Internet Monk. His name is Michael Spencer, and he has one of the most widely read Christian blogs on the web. Recently, he interviewed Dr. Nathan Finn, the assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr Finn had this to say about church membership:

Church membership is about more than mere affinity. If it was about like-mindedness alone there would be many viable alternatives to membership. I am like-minded with European Baptists. If affinity alone was the basis of church membership I could become a part of a chat-room with some Croatian Baptists and forget about my local church in Durham.

But church membership is about more than affinity. It is about authentic community, which I still believe primarily occurs in a face-to-face context. How can you covenant with, hold accountable, and share in the everyday lives of people you never see in person? There is a geographic component to church membership.

Church membership is also about more than a particular preacher or teacher. I listen to my share of sermons online, but only my pastors regularly preach to me. Only they understand the particularly needs of our congregation because they are part of our congregation. There is a contextual component to church membership that comes out especially in preaching and teaching.

Online communities and sermons are wonderful aids in our Christian walk, but they do not and cannot take the place of real community as embodied in local church membership.

Obviously, Dr. Finn was talking about why local church membership should be pursued rather than just sitting at your computer and "fellowshipping" with other believers online, but his words about "authentic community" struck a cord with me. If we can help church people understand that becoming members of a church is not about "joining the church" as much as it is about "locking arms" with other fellow believers and creating an authentic community of Christ-following worshippers, then I may be interested.

I'm all for entering into covenantal relationships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and sharing in their faith journey as they share in mine. I'm all for developing "David and Jonathan-like" relationships with some of the men in my church. And I'm all for being held accountable (in love) and holding others accountable. I need it and so do they.

If we could somehow capture the essence of this when we talk about church membership, then I think the skepticism of many like me would fade away. And if we could show that the privileges of church membership are not about casting a "yea or nea" vote but about enjoying purposeful and meaningful spiritual relationships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, then I think this church membership thing may have a chance with my generation and with the ones to come.


Evonne said...

Yea for authenticity! Dr. Finn's remarks are what it is all about and are what I believe we have always been taught at FHs. It always sounds good until the body confuses membership with congregational rule. It will be good for you to take us through the meanings again.

Darcy said...

I too am skeptical of church membership. The church I attended before I moved and got married - I was there for roughly 13 years. I got saved there (metaphorically speaking), baptized there, fellowshipped there, went through a church split (and stayed) there. But through all of that - I never "pledged" membership. It seemed...fake to me, at the time. And hollow - why do I have to 'join the club' in order to gain admittance to the inner sanctum? That is how, in my opinion, church membership comes across.

I think you may be on to something. If it can be taught in the right spirit, then it might be OK. But so often, in the church I attended and other churches I visited before coming to FH's, it's taught in an "us versus them" mentality.

Natros said...

I, for one, am thankful to see the Internet Monk on your blogroll--I've been reading him for several years, and find him quite insightful on a lot of topics.

As for church membership, I think the idea of church membership as authentic community has been taught, but not always fully understood at Foothills. As I see it, church membership is a pledge to a local group of believers, promising to participate in and support the body, and the body affirming the member's place in the community. It's a way to formalize the relationship between individual believers and the larger Church family. It should include some level of doctrinal agreement, acknowledgment and support of the leadership, willingness to be united through good times and difficult times, and joy that God is adding to our numbers as we journey together to follow Him.

It's often easier to see and celebrate these things in a new baptism (which often confers membership with it) than it is in an established believing family formally applying for membership. In both cases, though, I think it's an opportunity to remember and celebrate the things God is doing in us and through us, bringing new people into our family.

I think that church membership should also invite other members-- particularly the Elders of the church--to provide accountability, exhortation, and if necessary, discipline, in the same way that parents do with their children. This is something that *really* rubs us Gen-Xers (and the culture at large) the wrong way, in part because it can be and has been abused by cults and overzealous leaders. Still, I think it's a necessary part of ordering the church: honoring those God has sent to work among us, and acknowledging that God often speaks both encouragement and correction to us through our brothers & sisters.

FayeValdiviez said...

The problem many skeptics fear with church membership is that it seems to coerce submissiveness and acceptance of authority over them. I have known families who get up and go find another church at the least offense. This was the safe thing to do rather than meet the obstacle head on. They left because they could leave without guilt; they had not made any vows of commitment to the church they were leaving behind. Some served in the church faithfully for many years, but withheld membership just to maintain their independent spirit. It was like making sure the back door would be unlocked in case of a fire.

NOW...membership at Foothills is not at all comfortable for me and it is a process of handing over my preferences, my privacy, and my weaknesses to be under the authority and protective umbrella of the church leaders, mentors, and peers. This is perhaps why others balk at it, especially new believers who don’t have the foundation of a submissive spirit found in the Kingdom of God.

I think the reasons for this skepticism are thus:
1. Membership feels like a strangle-hold on my privacy. I know that's what MY nature craves. For many, there is distrust that even faithful believers will treat their lives with courtesy and care. We want to keep our distance so that no one else really tests our weaknesses nor expects anything from us where we are not willing to exert ourselves. If a person or family can remain on the outskirts of a committed relationship to a body of believers, they can hide and withdraw at will, avoid responsibility to ministry, and worship and run....”worship lite.”

2. Membership implies my openness to being examined, being disciplined, being taught new and more mature kingdom living paths, being on the church’s schedule and timing, and being expected to serve in ministry in some capacity. Basically, it asks us to be ready and willing to be activated for duty at any moment. For the weak and independent, the reserved and shy, the hurt and suspicious, this is frightening, sometimes offensive, and just too hard for them.

Of course, this is not a correct view. It’s a lazy view. It does not consider that eternity will involve hard things for us, too. I best be as prepared, accepting and willing to be molded to Jesus example of complete submission to authority as I can right now. I believe submission to the Trinity is eternal and the willingness to attach ourselves to a church program and people is the best earthly step to that acknowledgment. Nonmembers cannot be to themselves, participating just when they want to (and this is the reason for their uncommitted spirit) and experience the privilege of making the body complete.

3. Membership implores me to accept the call to be motivated and use up strength and energy for care giving when others call for it. Members agree to a continual, long-term vow of ministry for the sake of the body. Nonmembers are under no obligation to be a care giver, a teacher, or even a vital participant. The leaders cannot assume these “independents” will be available to grow the community of brothers and sisters. They MAY willingly be the first on the scene of a need, but it is troublesome that their choice is to be an uncommitted volunteer, and may be the reason they decline.
4. Membership pressures me to be open to at least a small group of close-knit believers. The problem for non-joiners is that not all some groups will be at maturity level nor able to properly handle other members lives of fallenness and weaknesses. This teeters on danger to our secret lives that we all know we have. But membership within Foothills Fellowship doesn’t have to give us the warm and fuzzies to be the correct avenue, and probably doesn’t most of the time. Membership is commitment is devotion is untimely is is downright difficult and draining. But when that commitment brings us hope, encouragement, fellowship and intimacy with like-minded believers, it is so rewarding, refreshing and brings great joy.

5. Even if one desires membership at Foothills, it doesn't mean he/she always wants to conform to its demands to share themselves with others. We all fail as members in reality, but the standards of membership are a better foundation for the church than no standard for commitment to a body of believers. There is such a variety of personalities that are thrown together in authentic community which causes it to feel imbalanced and put upon. None of us ever get our fair share in authentic Christian community. But....isn’t this why we must strive for the beauty of being sealed to each other? To learn to accept being the least of these...these difficult people? To learn to love them unconditionally, without judgment, with Christ-like love...because we are sealed with the blood of Christ together? These are the terms of church membership. Membership causes us to try our best to remain unmoved by the human failings within the church. It gives us devotion to its growth and its worship vitality. It also causes us to be responsible for the church’s standards of teaching with inerrancy. Nonmembers may also be sealed with the body members if the leadership so chooses, but nonmembers are under no obligation to meet the requirements. The fact that there are nonmembers in the church who have made a choice to be a separate entity from the body, but have the same say in church matters as the members is problematic for me.