Your Handy-Dandy Guide to Church Membership
So what are the traditional marks of membership of the church? Of course the criteria varied according to denomination, ideology, time, and culture. I make no claims to an all-encompassing or exhaustive list of how the church has viewed membership. This list just reflects my own understanding.
Baptism. On the surface I have no issue with baptism as initiation into the church, whether it be the infant or adult variety. I think there is sufficient evidence from scripture and church tradition to back this up. But when baptism becomes a symbol of membership, that’s where I have a problem. When viewed this way it can become exclusionary, the opposite of what it intends. The church has used baptism, or the lack thereof, or the wrong kind of baptism to keep people from communion, marriage, even salvation. We’ve all heard the horrible stories of deceased, unbaptized babies being buried outside the fence of the consecrated ground of the cemetery. Horrible!! In my evangelical upbringing, if you weren’t baptized, hadn’t “gone through the waters”, you were a second class Christian. If baptism is treated as a badge of honour or an initiation into an exclusive club, we have missed the point.
Doctrine. Many traditions require you to adhere to their belief statement or certain points of doctrine. Some insinuate this adherence while others may actually require you to sign an agreement or covenant. Again the concern is who is in and who is out. It is also a post-Enlightenment fascination with the intellectualization belief, that belief is synonymous with me giving intellectual assent to whether certain points of doctrine are factually true. Certainly belief and religious devotion is deeper than that. An honestly, is there anyone who agrees with everything their church teaches, or even what’s in the bible?
Tribal. Sadly membership in many churches can boil down to whether you look, sound, and smell like the rest of the members. Membership can align along racial, cultural or socio economic lines (no smelly people please!). For some it has to do with family values or sexual orientation. An idea that families of a certain type worship here, meaning that families that are blended, same sexed, mixed race or even single people for that matter, are held in suspicion or banned outright. For them I use the words of Paul, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).
Crisis Conversion. In many traditions to be a member of the church means to be saved. This usually means some type of crisis conversion. You are confronted by your sin and ask God to forgive you. You have an overpowering and unexplainable experience of the Holy Spirit. Whatever it is there is a moment, a date in time we you started being a Christian. I don’t deny these experiences and I can lay claim to my own such experiences. But these experiences can be used to show spiritual superiority. My conversion was more dramatic than yours, my sins greater than yours. Not everyone experience God or salvation in this manner. To use it as a criteria for membership is too exclusionary and can lead us to be like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable about the repentant tax collector (Luke 18-9-14).
Church attendance. It makes sense that if you are a Christian you would gather to worship with other Christians. In fact I have already argued that you can’t be a lone ranger Christian. And we all hear the bewailing of the lack of people in church and the longing for the good ol’ days when everyone went to church. We are, though, guilty of seeing the past through rose coloured glasses. Yes some people went to church from a deep rooted faith and devotion. Others, I suspect, went out a sense of obligation or even social pressure. Others went simply because there was little else to do on Sunday. No shopping, no sports, no movies, no brunch. Nothing.
The reality of the time we live in is very different. There is a plethora of things you can do on Sunday besides go to church. And thankfully there is no social pressure to go to church. You’re not held in suspicion by your neighbours if you don’t go to church. If people go to church now it is mainly because they want to. The busyness of people’s lives keep them from getting to church every Sunday. I tell people to find your rhythm that works for your family, whether that’s every Sunday, every other Sunday, once a month or only sporadically. Things like minimum attendance requirements for membership miss the point of church in the first place and just don’t get where people are in their lives.
Financial Commitment. Back in the day it was called ‘paying your dues’. It got you a reserved pew and got your name in the membership roll. The roll or list of contributors was often posted in the church for all to see, along with your financial contribution. Thankfully we don’t do this type of thing anymore. That being said there are still traditions that have very high expectations of their givers and limits on what you can do in the church if you don’t meet those expectations. Some expect their member to pledge what they will give each year. No pledge, no membership. Not very welcoming is it? Doesn’t scream belonging does it?
A word about tithing. That’s the practice of giving 10% of your income to the church, which is popular in some circles. It comes from a particular reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, in particular Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Let me just say that if you want to give 10% of your income to the church or any other worthwhile charity, then so be it. But if someone tells you give 10% or else, then you might want to reconsider. To interpret tithing passages literally and apply them wholesale to today is to overlook the original context of the practice and misappropriate the practice in the contemporary context in which we live.
One or a combination of the above would get you on the ‘parish list’, that is the membership list. For it you get tax receipts, pastoral care, access to the sacraments, voting privileges and a one way ticket to heaven. Even today people take great comfort in being a part of a parish, even if they rarely attend. Perhaps it’s just an insurance policy, or a guilty conscience. But I think it’s something deeper, something about belonging.
But how do people belong to faith communities today? Society has changed, people have changed and the way people view church and their participation in church has changed. I see three types of belonging in my own parish.
- Those people who attend on a regular basis, give financial support, are involved, and are on our parish list.
- Those who are on our parish list but who hardly ever attend, but give financial support.
- Those who are on our parish list but who hardly ever attend, but do not give financial support.
- Those who are not currently on our parish list but who were at some point. Crisis or special occasions like baptism, confirmation or marriage bring them back to us. They say “St. Mark’s is my parish” even though they make not have darkened the door in years.
- There are the hundreds, yes hundreds, of people we have baptized, confirmed and married. We meet with them, prepare them and pray for them. They never come back.
- Then there is the new phenomenon. The people who attend regularly, even get involved but never officially go on our parish list. We have no idea what they give, it could be nothing it could be lots. We simply can’t track it.
Who would be members using the traditional criteria? The answers would vary. But who belongs? I’m sure if you ask each of the people in each of these groups they would say ‘I do, I belong to (insert church name here)’. And if we looked at them honestly. If we knew their situations, their hearts, if we knew what makes them tick. If we knew where they came from and where they are going. If we knew their hopes, dream, fears, vulnerabilities, doubts, strengths and weaknesses. And if we looked at them through the eyes of Christ. If we welcomed like Christ. If we made a place for all like Jesus, eating and fellowshipping with all who crossed his path. If we used the inside-out logic of the Kingdom of God, who then, would belong? I think you know the answer.
Originally pubished in Neo(un)Orthodoxy February 22, 2016.