LarkNews has a satirical story about church membership:
Faith Community sent polite but firm letters to families who attend church services and “freebie events” but never volunteer, never tithe and do not belong to a small group or other ministry. The church estimates that of its 8,000 regular attendees, only half have volunteered in the past 3 years, and a third have never given to the church.
The story is funny, as it is meant to be, but it also gets me wondering about what we mean by church membership. The Episcopal Church has detailed canons about what it means to be a member of a congregation, how one transfers one’s membership to another congregation, etc. It’s all there in Title 1, Canon 17. Here’s a snippet:
A member of this Church removing from the congregation in which that person’s membership is recorded shall procure a certificate of membership indicating that that person is recorded as a member (or adult member) of this Church and whether or not such a member:
Upon acknowledgment that a member who has received such a certificate has been enrolled in another congregation of this or another Church, the Member of the Clergy in charge or Warden issuing the certificate shall remove the name of the person from the parish register.
I’ve been a member (I thought) of a handful of Episcopal congregations in my life. I have never once done this. Has anyone?
The thing is, I think membership might be something we want to reclaim more actively in the church. So much of the world today is about minimizing commitment—people want one-off obligations, if they want obligations at all. It’s not only churches that are having trouble getting people to join. It’s political parties, service organizations, and (famously) bowling leagues. (In my mind this lack of commitment is related to prevelance irony and sarcasm in society: why commit to something when you can make fun of it?)
But Christianity is (inter alia) about a life-long commitment to God in Christ, and the church is where we experience that commitment. Membership is how we express that commitment. Commitment is one of many ways in which Christianity is counter-cultural.
The trouble is, as attendance/membership has declined and the Euro-Atlantic world has become a more secular place, the church has responded not by highlighting the importance of commitment, but minimizing it. Here, take communion, some say. You don’t even have to be baptized! The Episcopal Church welcomes you! You can belong before you believe!
There may be good reasons to say these things, but the point here is that the church comes to sound more and more like the world around it: you don’t have to commit. Along the way, our canons on membership appear to have become a casualty.
I visited a church once that had membership forms. It was such an unusual thing to see that I picked one up. The form invited me to give my information and have a meeting with the priest. That kind of form I had seen before. But what this form also said was that if I became a member, I would publicly affirm my commitment to the church in a liturgical fashion during a Sunday service. I had not seen that before. I was a visitor so I didn’t fill out the form, but I found myself impressed by it. Among other things, it indicated to me that this place really took itself seriously. (This is not the only way of showing you take yourself seriously, of course.) I should say this church was going like gang-busters when I was there.
There can be a real reluctance in the world these days to draw in-out lines. But I wonder if that’s not what the church needs to do sometimes. This is not a hostile act. On the one hand, we might say, “These are members of the church, and this is what members of the church do.” (That, more or less, is what our canons already do.) On the other hand, we say to those not in the church, “And we can’t wait for you to come join us and be committed to the transforming love of God in Christ as well. And we’re so eager for you to join us, that we’re going to come to you and show you how we’ve experienced that grace.”
It would certainly be different than what the world is used to hearing.
I’m genuinely curious (as always) how you think this might play out in the congregation you know best.