A recent conversation sparked my interest in the topic of church membership. I have always been fascinated by this idea of being “members” of a church. Mainly because membership comes with to serious connotations in my mind: 1) It is exclusive (you are either in or out) 2) It is formal, not relational. In other words, membership has always seemed like a formalized status of being part of a church community through agreement with a certain set of beliefs and values, and a ritualized ceremony attesting to that agreement. “Membership” in other words almost completely ignores the relational aspects of community.
And the centre of this debate for me stand baptism and communion. In my church tradition baptism has usually been the ritual of integration and membership into the community. Communion on the other hand has been the ritual reserved for those baptized, for those who are members of either “my” church or another church. This is where things get difficult for me… Because I like the fact that baptism is a communal event and its a public commitment not only to a Christian life, but also to a life within a community of love, accountability and outreach. And a celebration of remembrance and re-commitment to these same things through communion is important as well.
And then there is the other side. Stuart Murray in his book Church After Christendom
summarizes in a helpful way the current trend of “belonging” before “believing.” In other words, many people today (and I think this is mainly a millenial problem) come to belief through belonging. That is where the rubber hits the road. We want people to experience the grace of Christ in our churches. We want to be a welcoming inclusive community in which people can feel safe and where Christ is present and engaging. And yet, we also cannot fully be just that community. Because the Church in one form or another encourages commitment. Grace is not just amnesty it is also a call for action. Grace is as much exclusive as it is inclusive: it requires commitment! It requires both believing and belonging! And so while belonging leading to belief attests Christ’s work through the church, rituals that bind faith and belonging together are important and necessary.
And so, this is where I stand in this conversation. What do you think? While faith and participation in community belong together, do we need to change things? Is this an issue of naming? How exclusive/inclusive does the Church need to be? Is it important to be a member? Or is it good enough to attend? Is there a difference in commitment between membership and attendance? And in the end, what does belonging to a church actually look like?
As you see, the list of questions is long and the answers are not always easy. I do not know where I stand. However, I know one thing, that Christ called me not just to follow him but to be in the Church because that is the way God has chosen to work in this world.