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Pleding to a Body: Thoughts on Church Membership

May 21st, 2007 by Jason · 12 Comments

I’ve never been a “member” of a church, at least not in the sense of signing a statement that says something to the effect of “I pledge to stick with this church and agree with its basic teachings.” Mostly this is because I had never attended a church that had any sort of official membership until recently. Quest, the church we’ve found in Seattle, does have membership and I found the whole idea quite foreign and a little weird at first. What little I knew of membership at churches was hearsay, but it was not good hearsay. I had heard of churches where the size of the membership is far larger than those that actually attend the church and the only time the membership list was dusted off was when a contentious issue was set to be voted on. At this point people who hadn’t actually participated in the life of the church in years were vitally interested in casting their vote. Membership also seems a bit elitist, as though the church is some sort of spiritual country club where only those who have paid their dues are allowed into the inner circle

Despite my hesitations my wife and I decided to attend the membership class largely out of curiosity to see how it stacked up to my preconceived notions about “membership.” The class was fine—we weren’t asked to tatoo the faith statement on our foreheads or told any secret passwords (though promises of free coffee at the church’s cafe would not have been turned down!). Nonetheless, it wasn’t until last week that I found a theological foundation and motivation for pursuing membership. In Where God Happens Rowan Williams looks to the eccentric desert fathers and mothers of the 4th and 5th century for wisdom in living the Christian life today.

Staying, is the chapter that struck me as having quite a bit of relevance for this idea of church membership, even if it wasn’t specifically what Williams was discussing. He writes:

The church celebrates fidelity…. It lives by the regular round of worship, the daily prayer of believers, the constant celebration of the Eucharist, meeting the same potentially difficult or dull people time after time, because they are the soil of growth. It insists that we go on reading the same book and reciting the same creeds, not so as to limit and control, but to make sure that we promise to go on listening to what we believe is an inexhaustible story (110, my emphasis).

Williams recognizes how easily we use our bodies and environment as tools for quick fixes and easy escapes. It is so very tempting, especially in our highly mobile society, to think that changing my environment will solve my problems. The quest for the perfect church (i.e. full of people like me) is long and unsatisfying. Of course, there are seasons when God leads us to new places, but most of the time the toughest spiritual challenge we face is simply staying. As Williams puts it: “the guidance we need is not so much how not to be bored but how to face boredom without terror, not so much how to greet everything with spiritual joy and excitement but how to preserve the quiet motivation to keep our eyes open.” Thus, becoming a “member” is a way of rooting myself in a particular place, a particular church, a particular group of people. Not in order to have voting rights or an elite status, but as a was to follow the great commandment of loving myself (because I cannot so easily escape to some new place to avoid my problems), my neighbor (because I am pledging to journey with them through both the extraordinary and ordinary times), and God (because, as Williams’ subtitle puts it, we “discover Christ in one another”).

Tags: church life · theology

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // May 21, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    Great meditation on membership, my friend. I also appreciate the use of Williams’ wonderful book. I was also struck by the importance of “staying” with the monastics.

    But there’s one thing that may complicate things, I think. You write, “it is so very tempting…to think that changing my environment will solve my problems.” I think you are right: this is a temptation that Williams warns us against. But at the same time we have to tell the other part of the monastic story: they retreated from the environment to find a different way. The “staying” happened after leaving. The desert fathers and mothers left the emerging ‘constantinian’ society.

    So, I don’t think the solution is just to become a member of whatever church is around. There’s also the call to depart from environments that may pollute our souls. (As I like to say, I have a hard time voting for a president because they have to be the commander and chief of the armed forces and that kind of power is bad for anyone’s soul). I can imagine churches that provide bad environments. Heck, I grew up in one. I guess it takes some messy and patient discernment.

  • 2 Chris Klopp // May 22, 2007 at 6:20 am

    As you say, Isaac, “it takes some messy and patient discernment.” The process of “departing” too often gives in to the temptations of “remnant” theology, especially if our leaving church is due to the (perhaps misguided) desire to find the “pure” or “true” church. Likewise, “staying” for the sake of “staying” can result in a kind of resignation. It’s really hard to know what to do in many cases. I think the key is to discover, as Williams says, that these dull people with whom we meet every week are actually indispensible to our growth. The dull church is the soil of our spiritual development. As a former Catholic Worker and anti-war activist, I’m trying to discover how this process works as I serve a conservative Southern Methodist church. Every day I learn something new about fidelity, patience, and grace. The church is far from perfect, but so am I.

    Great article Jason.

  • 3 Daniel // May 22, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Excellent reflections. Thank you.

  • 4 Lee // May 23, 2007 at 5:04 am

    There’s also the possibility not mentioned by +Rowan that I might be one of those “difficult or dull people” that other people graciously put up with! 😉

    One thing I’ve observed at some churches that don’t have formal membership is that you still end up with certain people who are more involved in the church’s life, move into leadership positions, etc. I’m not sure if this respects the iron law of oligarchy, or what, but it may be one more case where doing away with the formal trappings leaves the substance of the thing intact.

  • 5 Chris Klopp // May 23, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    I certainly am one of those “difficult or dull people.” The irony is that the more I criticize the imperfections of others, the more I become unbearable myself. We are all inescapably dull and difficult. That’s why membership is so important. We’ve got to understand that the quest for a less “dull” or “difficult” church is an impossible one. We are called to be committed to all these ordinary people with their ordinary problems and irritations. Sometimes I wish, however, that the church was more like the Justice League of America and that we were all superheroes. I’d be Green Lantern.

  • 6 Jason // May 23, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Isaac and Chris, I agree there is that messy business of discerning when to “flee” as well. I don’t have any great wisdom on how to figure that one out; only that it seems fleeing from others is both incredibly easy and frequent in our society. Sometimes it is really time to go somewhere new, and for that messy discernment is needed.

    Lee, I think you are right, the “substance” of membership seems (and even hierarchy!) to exist in churches without formal membership. In some ways, though, I think a church with “informal membership” can be more problematic because there is no clear articulation of how one becomes a member (or a deacon, or an elder, etc.) and so there is more room for those with power to control who is in and who is out without having to consult the rest of the church about it.

  • 7 Chris // Jun 6, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    Just stumbled across your blog, I’m not sure how. Either way, at my church we look at “membership” as a partnership. Not as a thing where you committ all of your time and money and we gladly take it, but as a covenant. We partner with you as you partner with us – were in this life together, we can’t do it alone. Just some thoughts, loved this post.
    Shalom!
    -c

  • 8 Just a person // Jun 27, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Hey,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve been in a church member in the past and never thought anything of it. But I’m in a new place after a particularly rough patch in another house. I’m not so sure I believe in membership anymore although I am committed to this new place and have been through the membership class. Just not sure I can stand up and say vows.

    Just a person

  • 9 dave // Dec 7, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Yeah. Affirmation of the faith, active service, devotion to the body of Christ, to me these are all indicators of inclusion in the local body of believers. The flip-side is definatley there: What if the local group ceases to function by New Testament principles ? The world is full of “churches”, weird sects, cults, and fratenal organizations that look and feel the same as traditional church bodies. Anyone can speak the name of Jesus emotionally, watch a t.v. preacher. I am currently in a congregational group. They vote- in whoever seems willing to be on the council. This is not the same as elders and overseers. The group has no real reporting accountability to a higher authority or audit review by higher authority asin presbyterianism. The group has no spiritual qualifications. The pastors have degrees but an MDIV is not a spiritual qualification. However, our congragation still has the appearance of being part of a denomination. Satan has been allowed to deceive entire continents. What do you think he can do to 6 or 8 people who don’t think they don’t have to disclose their dealings with a congregation? The voters don’t know what they are doing behind closed doors so it is not even congregational polity anyway! You always need to be able to LEAVE and make it clear to all why you have done so. Don’t ever meet one-on-one with someone who possesses a title especially if the group is disorganized. You will be misrepresented and the problems will go merrily on unconfronted after you are gone. That being said, I have stuck it out for years in bad situations.

  • 10 dave // Dec 28, 2009 at 8:02 am

    One clarification to earlier comment. Our congregation does have many individuals who posses spiritual qualifications of overseer/elder including the pastor as far as I can tell. I think they mean well. However if someone talks about the “leadership” of the congregation they are not referring to these qualifications. They are talking about hired staff position titles and council members. I don’t see myself needing to say vows to any specific local group any more than I need to pray to Mary, based upon Biblical teaching. Based on what I have seen happen historically, it is dangerous to pledge allegiance to any group who truly does not exercise its own internal oversight with a true plurality of overseers.

  • 11 Peter // Jan 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I’m surprised (maybe I shouldn’t be) at the number of comments which seem to view church membership as a “pledge of allegiance”. I prefer Chris’s view of partnership and covenant. Sure, as believers we are all part of “the church” with Christ as the head. Local churches, however, operate as the hands and feet of Christ and need direction and discipline in order to express Christ’s love in an effective way. In becoming a member of the local church you do make a committment – a committment to support one another through prayer and giving of time and finances. I also find it strange that many people have no difficulty accepting formal membership and constitutions when comes to other organizations, but balk at the idea of this in the local church.

  • 12 Michael Kemp // Feb 8, 2011 at 6:31 am

    This is quite the most helpful discussion of the hotly debated issue of “membership” I have come across. Thank you to everyone for your thoughtful comments. My own position is that, having been in membership of my local Baptist church on two occasions, and having left of my own volition, I am not truly a “member” of any church just now, apart from my devotion to Christ.
    I hold to the Prayer Book statement in the thanksgiving after Communion: Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of the most precious death and passion of thy dear Son. “Very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son” is surely the only form of church membership God recognises or requires? All else, it seems to me, is simply a matter of expediency, or, dare I suggest it, a facet of a control mechanism. This, as we well know, is itself the essence of witchcraft – domination, manipulation and control – reminiscent more of a masonic lodge than a company of those called to be saints!