To Membership Or Not, Or A Lesson in De-Egocentrism

The issue of church membership is an interesting one. To say the trend is in decline is to say it nicely – it’s fading faster than Blockbuster Video (note that may be my first ever pop culture joke… I wouldn’t do well among fans of Jon Acuff). Membership seems mostly reserved for denominations these days, as not many other churches seem to care anymore (note: I nearly made a crack about churches using membership as a ploy to get more money, but it was impulsive, unfair, sensational and totally unbased, and in light of yesterday’s post about not resorting to shock value and manipulation I decided against it.)

I must admit I haven’t thought much about the issue till today when I heard about a married couple being rejected by a church for membership. I don’t want to analyze that particular rejection because I couldn’t know less about the situation and it’s circumstances, and as always there are two sides to a story.

I’m not going to say churches shouldn’t do membership – but I think instead of entering someone into membership into our little club that has a name, location and website we should enter them into the larger body of Christ.

Do you see the difference? Because rejecting them as a member of your little church does not mean they should be rejected from the fellowship of the Church, and that is a big distinction to make.

Note: I have no idea who People's Church is nor do I have anything against them. Though they do have something against me: I stole their jpeg.

Now it makes sense to reject someone from your little club if they don’t it into your mold, I get that. But we don’t get to be God’s gatekeeper. The natural problem that arises with rejecting someone as a member of your little club is that they can easily interpret as a rejection from God and/or his people. (And the person doing the rejecting may also see the rejectee not being worthy of Jesus’ kingdom too). After all, we are God’s representatives here on earth, which has perks and some drawbacks as well.

So maybe there is a larger issue to address here. I think we need to stop focusing on each little church gathering in a town as a church. I’m sure you’ve heard it so many times that the point is not simply moot but annoying – but church happens outside of 4 walls and apart from formal meetings and programs. When I saw my friends tonight for dinner – church happened. So therefore, who gets to be considered apart of that church and who, by default, doesn’t isn’t up to us. And we can hold a membership class to teach what “we’re” all about, but let’s be honest – it isn’t really about us.

What do you think about the decline in membership? What are the pros and cons?

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22 Responses to To Membership Or Not, Or A Lesson in De-Egocentrism

  1. I come from a tradition that does not vote. I don’t get this whole thing about voting to accept or not? Where in the Scripture does that come from anyway? Off the subject I know. I see both sides to it. For some churches it is a “commitment issue.” Every other club requires membership (Lions, Elks, Chamber of Commerce, etc) so why not the church? It gives identity. But at the same time i can see and have seen how it is abused. I think it should be up to the individual congregation. As for the decline: I can see why it is happening as people are more transient now but I can also see that it is like Sunday School, VBS and some other things going the way of the dodo bird: “for everything there is a season…”

    • I can understand the identity thing (is Christianity a club? not a totally sarcastic question as its yes AND no)- but ultimately our identity is in the larger Church.

      Sunday School is all about dead around these parts, and VBS is becoming a denominational thing. The seasons are changing for sure Bill.

  2. Jeff says:

    I think times have changed and “churches” haven’t kept up. Growing up, church was a place to meet. To meet people who you didn’t work with or go to school every day. The day you got off the farm and talked to something other than family or livestock. Today, connecting is as easy as punching letters in your little hand held social interaction device.
    Blogs are a great substitute for actually not knowing someone and yet feeling connected.
    And the churches I have visited have the same boring, monotonous, routine week after week after week. Some do have better music than others. And all still have the same hidden rules used to judge who is worthy and who is not.
    My problem with “church”. Boring, boring, boring. Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant.

    • David says:

      Jeff, what would make church not boring? I am a warrior for how to engage folks with the Gospel and not be a jerk about it. I’d like to reach folks like you, tell me how.

      • Jeff says:

        I’ll try.I know what the Bible says. I don’t need nor want a continuim of someone telling me what the Bible says. I am not a wretched person with problems only Jesus can make me feel better about. I want a church that is catering to the community, not to me. I want an action plan and I want to participate in the action. I don’t want to be a spectator.I don’t want a self help program just for me.
        I want a church that is relevant to solving the needs of the community. If the church is not there, what is the impact to the community? Does it lose it’s greatest resource for feeding the hungry? I like food banks. Does it lose it’s greatest resource for literacy improvement? I like education. Does it lose it’s greatest resource for poverty assistance? I like Community Action Agencies. Does it lose it’s greatest resource for teen mentoring? I like Boys and Girls Clubs. Does it lose it’s greatest resource for elderly issues. I like Meals on Wheels.
        Or does the Church not matter to the Community and it is just a place to be a member, socialize with other members, maintain a building, pay someone to tell you why Elijah was a big deal, and give you hope that you won’t really die when you die.

        Etc. Etc.

      • Jeff says:

        Oh, I forgot. One more thing. I would like to reach folks like you.

    • @Jeff I liken what you’re saying about church as a place to meet people to the rodeo. If you’ve ever been to a true rodeo you know it’s like the biggest event of the year for people who live in rural ranch areas. Hence all the fancy leather hats, vests and boots – they’re dressing up to show off their bright feathers and make a statement about themselves, similar to dressing up for church 20 years ago. Remember when churches made a big deal about “you can wear jeans here!”? I don’t even think twice about wearing shorts and a t-shirt to church anymore.

      Also it sounds like you don’t want to sit around in a church anymore and simply take in whatever they have cooked up for you that week, but you actually want to do something. I definitely can get on board with that, though at the same time of skeptical of institutions, programs and “ministries” doing the work of justice, as I wrote about recently. I would also agree that I don’t need much more information from the church – especially as a career Christian I’ve learned probably too much because it has come at the expense of leaving the classroom…

      • Chris says:

        @ Jeff.

        You’ve made some really interesting comments regarding how you wish church would be, and I can sympathize with a lot of your reasons. If I may I’d like to push back just a bit.

        Your comment: “I want a church that is catering to the community, not to me.” along with your other comments is basically what you find in the mainline, liberal denominations. What is it that is not there that would prevent you from moving in that direction towards churches of that leaning? They also de-emphasize scripture, or perhaps I should say they view it differently than I do, which sounds like it may be more to your liking. There is virtually no concept there that “I am a wretched sinner” as you say and they forego straightforward biblical exegesis and prefer instead liberal, higher textual criticism. Maybe I’m misreading you there.
        I think I’d mentioned before, when I was part of a more liberal denomination there was always something of service to the community to be involved in. Perhaps not all mainline churches are this way, not sure. But for me there was something else missing. I’m just curious if the reasons you don’t go there are because you find similar things missing.
        I think I understand your major point. It’s one I always would ask myself. If the church (my particular church) were to drop off the face of the earth, would anyone even notice? Would there be a hole in the community? Would people ask: what ever happened to them? They were always there for you in some way or another. We miss them.

        I recall once when I was in a meeting at my old church, there was a situation where a rather large, nearby church within the same denomination was splintering off because of what they felt were irreconcilable differences in theology with the greater denomination. I remember an elder making a comment about this particular situation. He had noticed driving by this church that they had a sign out front that said “A Christ-Centered Church” at which he scoffed, “aren’t all churches Christ-centered?” To which I responded, no. Not all churches are Christ-centered. Some churches are cause-centered. This was what my church and its denomination had become, and it was why people were leaving in droves. IMHO participating in good or social causes do not address the innermost need of people. They do make you feel good for a time, but they don’t meet the most radical need in all of us. Which, to put it simply, is Jesus.
        With scripture de-emphasized (or perhaps I should say deconstructed and re-interpreted) and by extension, Jesus, all you are left with is a social organization and a system of ethics. We really don’t need “church” for that. After all, we know precious little about Jesus outside of scripture.

        Also, your comment about not wanting a continuum of what the bible says is understandable. But there was something in Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” that I recall that always gives me pause when I feel as you do. I can’t quote exactly, but the gist was that Wormwood was instructed to get into the minds of people and to make scripture seem old, tired and boring. That this was one of the best ways to undermine God and faith in Him. Scripture admonishes us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And in Revelations it also chastises one of the churches (can’t recall which) for having lost the feeling of its first love. Are we bored with God? Whose fault is that? If it’s the churches and the preachers fault then shame on us for allowing it to happen. But God is never boring. He is the perpetual novelty. And to lose the wonder of God is like losing the wonder of taking in a vista of a mountain range or gazing at the heavens through a telescope.

      • Jeff says:

        @ Chris
        Given the time you spent I at least owe a reply.
        You certainly got the main point on relevance. Would anyone notice if we were not here.
        As far as liberal vs. conservative I am not sure exactly what that means. There are, I have read, 638 different denominations. I am sure they each think their variation is the correct one. There certainly are a large number of denominations I would avoid simply on the basis of thinking they are off base on their interpretation. Catholic, Pentacostal, Baptist, Calvinist, Christian Scientist, and many others.
        You probably misread/misinterpreted my comment on “the continuum of what the Bible says” This has to do with the boredom factor. Most churches use the same preacher, with the same presentation, in the same amount of minutes, with the same angle, week after week after week. I prefer reading sermons from different perspectives, different eras, different angles. It’s not that I find the material to be stale. Only the delivery. I would encourage you to read conservative, white, southern, Christian preachers’ sermons from the 1830-1845 era. They had their sound biblical interpretations all figured out. And then maybe try a sermon by Peter Gomes, current Pastor at Memorial Church at Harvard. Probably the liberal variety you spoke of. I’ll warn you. He is Black and Gay. So I like variety of interpretations to consider.
        I don’t think Christ or cause is an either /or. I think they work best together. One with out the other is boring and irrelevant.

      • wow some good convo’s. The balance of not simply being a cause-based church is a tricky one, and from what I’ve observed most churches tend to do very little outwardly expressed love, so it’s good to correct but of course not to over-correct. I wrote about it before on here, but I think the key is not making your cause-conscious church all about programs and ministries with snappy names and sign up lists. Instead emphasize a more personal approach, where you are helping, say the poor, but not putting them into a client (and therefore power differential) role.

  3. I come from a tradition that does vote. Way too much. Congregational polity is a REQUIREMENT, because the particular church I am currently a member of 🙂 🙂 was formed because of a split with a church where leadership made decisions that many members did not approve of without letting the membership vote. HUGE deal to these people. “It’s our money, we have the right to vote on where it goes”. That kind of thing. We also “vote” on church members, and yes, I hate it. Many swear that church membership is BIBLICAL because Paul says to have nothing to do with fornicators who continue to live in sin and won’t repent. I say baloney. I despise “church membership” and “voting on members” and “business meetings” and all that, but it’s as deep in Baptist world as you could possibly imagine. In modern times, with the “problems” the church has with gay culture, the primary concern is making sure that homosexuals can’t “take over the church”, because if we don’t have some legal way to “keep them out”, we’re terrified that they’re going to invade and we can’t stop them. The secondary concern is that most churches feel the need to be able to “discipline” misbehaving members by kicking them off the church roll, and if we don’t have membership, that would be impossible, so surely membership is Biblical.

    Hogwash. IMO.

    Yet, I don’t know how to fix it, either. Our little church, yep, the same one, actually eschewed the idea of membership completely to start with, and it did a lot better until we started (a lot of it MY fault) trying to formalize and become a little more Baptist… 😦 There WAS no constitution, no bylaws, just church. Now, we’ve got all the paperwork but not much real church. I’m terribly ashamed of my part in all that. We’ve done things “right” and ruined a lot.

    • wow fascinating story – I mean truly. Oh man I could write heaps about how the formalizing of the church actually leads to its death (even though its seen as making it legitimate). I can definitely see why membership was created in your scenario – as a way to keep power in check, however there are underlying questions 1) why does a group have so much power 2) how does the leadership have such a drastic vision from the people (and therefore who should really be leading?) 3) what kind decisions are being made that really need to be voted on – as you identified probably silly organizational things that are distracting the church from its primary purpose.

      I know your blog is more of a fun place now, but man I’d love if you wrote more about this stuff (as you can tell I’m eating it up)

  4. David says:

    Membership is not biblical. By faith we are all of the same body, period. Any voting, bylaws, signed statements of faith are just fluff. How about, “let your yes, be yes.”

    There are a lot of non-biblical things going on in churches. The theological terms is dead religion.

    Voting on anything in a church is non-biblical. There is the casting of lots though – I sort of like that.

    Most church structures are feeble because, for the most part, they are designed after American corporations. Ephesians 4:11 clearly defines 5 “doma” gifts, but we use maybe 2 or possibly 3 of them.

    Our corporate churches create ladders to success, usually they have the pastor as the top position. If you are a type A, you might only get to be an elder. If you don’t follow the prescribed path, or your gifting doesn’t fit into one of the “positions”, you are just a bored and frustrated sheep going nowhere.

    The apostolic church view is opposite, it says let’s find out what your gifts are, let us equip you, love you, disciple you (relationship) and mentor you to do anything God has called you to do, and we will get behind it even if it is NOT our personal vision! Instead we design programs that are hard to staff, and in the end (according to Willow Creek) create shallow disciples.

    My own experience has been this. My writing gift, though called out in a prophetic meeting in front of hundreds in 1998, has never been acknowledged by a local church until this year. But be sure, they would love to have a guy with a music degree on the worship team, that slot is open. I don’t care about kudos, or thanks – I just want to do what God has put on my heart. At my last church, the pastor wouldn’t even read my blog. I doubt they ever even thought it could help their church, and certainly it didn’t fit a program they had in place. My new pastor read a few dozen blogs, and helped me write a book! Then he created a class for me to teach what was in the book! We have others at church that do religious art and music, and he regularly lets them have 2 or 3 minutes to talk about their art or play a tune for us. All of it is a blessing to the regular and visiting attendees.

    My point is this, unless we hear God and do it, we are sunk. My secondary point is this, if we function in a broken church structure, it is highly likely that folks will be bored, feel insignificant, and a lot of gifting will be wasted; or worse, jammed into a renegade para-church ministry with little accountability.

    Good topic!

    • and great comments David! I think, somehow I don’t remember, I wrote a post about how churches are mirroring corporate America, but its a fascinating topic to explore. You are right we definitely build our churches around certain personality types, which is just so troubling and flawed I don’t even know where to begin.

      Your new pastor sounds like he really gets “it” – “it” being seeing the endlessly deep well that is his people. I’m so glad you found a pastor that 1) knows who you are 2) knows your gifts 3) actually takes the time to see how your gifts play out and 4) actually utilize those gifts. Each one of those points is amazing, and that’s unfortunate that your experience is FAR from the norm. It’s actually incredibly annoying that it is a minority experience.

  5. David says:

    And here is a link for a blog I wrote about tall this a while back.

  6. Larry Hughes says:

    This is a touchy subject. I think memberships and voting in members should be left to the country clubs and social clubs ( Masons, Lions , Kiwanas, eagles and what ever).

    When I was transfered to West Virginia by a major coorporation back in the 70s, we went out looking for a church we could call home. We found one close by that might fit. The first Sunday that we attended, some one ( possibly the welcoming greeter) came up to welcome me and the first thing out of his mouth was what do I do for a living. Being a little reluctant to blurt out what I actually was I said I was a stock person in a store ( I was a District Manager). He said nice seeing you and shook my hand with a limp shake and walked off. No one else seemed friendly as I noticed him talking to others pointing at us as we walked around in the lobby before the services. . We scratched that church off our list.

    The church is God’s house or temple. We don’t have a right to judge who we will accept or vote in to a church memberhip. The churches will continue to loose members as long as they hold on to that philosophy.

    The churches were primarily planned for those seeking God’s grace. Now I am not saying it is a place for the followers that presume to be saved and no one else. is allowed.
    I am saying it is a place for the down trodden sinners that want to be transformed by God’s grace. It is a place for new followers to learn of God’s love and His words, It is a place for all that seek out Jesus and His salvation, It is a place for all to learn of His gifts through the Holy spirit, It is a place to develop into a Loving Christian to others less fortunate and accept them into His fold no matter what their social or financial status is.

    It is a place to worship God for all comers.

    • as I was writing the post I couldn’t quite remember a point I wanted to make, it had somehow slipped from me but you Larry just brought it up – that I have just as much right to be in a church as anyone else, INCLUDING THE PASTOR, and therefore no one should be deciding who’s in or who’s out. We have made an imaginary power differential – but it’s simply air, it’s made up, it’s not real even though we abide by it. Maybe that makes it real, I don’t know, I’m not looking at getting into philosophy here.

      I think you nailed it that membership is a way to count someone as “in” and that’s usually limited to the righteous, to the ones who look so blameless. In other words membership is also a way to keep certain people out, including the down trodden. It’s just like any other club. ewww…

      • Larry Hughes says:

        Charlie:

        If you think about it. Many that are in church show a front that they have it all together and righteous when as a fact they are all messed up. They are only pretending to be all together when the actual fact is they are all messy followers afraid to let their inner secrets out about their messy lives.

        Me I am a messy follower with all kinds of hangups and I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I just try to be as Jesus despite my mess but it shows through as I wear my emotions and who I am on my collar.

        Yep Charlie, we all deserve to be in the house of the Lord despite our looks ,age, quirks, or social status. That is the only way we can become as Jesus. The great thing about it is He loves us just as we are.

      • In due fairness, that’s not why most people that do it do it. I think that’s an unfortunate byproduct. Most people do it because many – if not most – pastors teach that it’s a Biblical requirement. Mass misinformation. No actual calculated intent to keep someone out. Most people WANT people to join their church. Claiming that they want to keep people out is a hard defense to take. Very few have such an intention.

  7. Pingback: Self Indulgent 100th Post, Or You Can’t Know Yourself Until You Live For a While | Charlie's Church of Christ

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