When I started working at my church, I was an interim worship leader brought on by an interim pastor. It was beautiful. I got to be aloof and opinionated, and all the time I was able to tell people, “Take this or leave it… I’m outta here in twelve months.”
Then my wife got pregnant.
They offered me, as well as the interim senior pastor, a permanent position. With medical benefits. And a raise. And you know what… they were pretty decent folks, too; smart, kind, and generous, filled with a desire to hear and act upon the voice of the Holy Spirit.
So we stayed.
Somewhere in the process of my negotiations for a permanent role, this one little tidbit got passed over: church membership. I was never formally asked, or ordered, to become a member of my church. So… we didn’t. According to church bylaws, I have found out recently, everyone on staff is supposed to be a member. As a side note, I actually would have liked it better had they forced me to do it when I was a newbie. I would have taken it as one of the costs of admission, and evaluated my response differently. But… that didn’t happen.
A year later, when having an annual review, after a very pleasant time of conversation and prayer with the elders, one of them turned to me (with a Cheshire cat grin) and said… “Well, I only have one other question, when are you and Erica becoming members?”
I laughed and sort of shrugged it off, taking the context as meaning that it was something that he was thinking about, but not really concerned about. This same elder has mentioned it to me, in a similarly jovial fashion, perhaps twice since then. I kind of took it in the same way I took it when my Grampa Don told me to take out my earrings: he kind of wishes I would, but He’s not really interested in making a federal case out of it.
Fast forward another two years or so to our present situation. My boss, the former interim, has resigned under extremely unfavorable circumstances. I have written little about this on the blog out of a desire to keep my private thoughts just that, but since November 21, 2005 (black Monday), my intertwined work and church lives have become increasingly difficult. I have struggled mightily to hold it all together, and things, frankly, exist in a state of unresolved tension for me when it comes to church right now. I profoundly miss my friendship and my working relationship with this man. So, imagine my dilemma, when at an elder meeting last weekend, I was discussing an unrelated topic, and the issue of my membership arises again. This time, I am candid and open, always a bad idea.
“Guys… I have to be honest. I don’t think I realized how much of the identity of this church I had wrapped up in Tom. I feel like I am getting to know this congregation for the first time again, this time without his leadership there to assist me. I love you guys, and I promise that I am not going to leave you out to twist in the wind, but I just feel like putting my name on that dotted line at this moment is a little disingenuous.”
They were fine with that… and then I opened my big, fat, mouth one more time.
“And also, I think that church membership is kind of a silly, outdated notion.”
Well, they wanted to know more about that, as you can imagine. I vomited for them several reasons as to why I didn’t like the idea of church membership, which I will re-vomit for you here, in no particular order, and then open the floor for discussion. I really need you guys to help me suss out (or deflate) my argument, as my elders have asked for a presentation on the topic, as I allegedly represent the thinking of the under-35 crowd.
A) There is no Biblical basis for church membership. As far as I know, there is no mention of becoming a member of the Body of Christ at a local level as we understand it today in most of our local churches. As far as I can discern, this is an entirely man-made construct. My wife and I, in one of the many discussions we’ve had about this in the last week, discussed the weirdness of the notion that there needs to be some sort secondary level of approval or affirmation of faith and doctrinal purity. “I am already a member of the Body of Christ, Intergalactically!” she said, blonde hair gleaming in the sun.
B) Membership is a word that has lost its appeal. I am a member of my gym. A member of Blockbuster Video. I am a member of this.. and of that… We really want to categorize our participation in the ongoing ministry and revelation of the Most High in the same way we participate in getting a discount at the supermarket? Really?
On the flipside, one of the initial things that popped in my skull-full-of-mush when I heard the word “Membership” was a country club. On the other extreme of a word that implies something that has become meaningless, this use of the word says, “I’m in the club. I’m good to go. You might get to join the club, but not until you get your Bible handicap under 6.” I don’t like that, and since we’re in a realm of personal taste, and not Biblical truth, I get to say…. I don’t like that. The word “Membership” has to go buh bye.
C) Pastors are in a drastically different category then laypeople, and should be allowed a different statement of commitment. This is the big one for me. I realize that this argument doesn’t apply to many of you, so I apologize for wasting your bandwidth, but I resent the idea that I am required to make the same kind of committment to the church that a lay person is asked to make. I find it just silly, and not at all observant of reality.
I am employed by my church. My roles and responsibilities and accountabilities are drastically different from someone who makes a concious decision to become a member. I have never, ever made an entirely free decision about where I am attending church for the past seven years, because the necessity of a paycheck has determined where my car will be parked on Sunday morning. If that paycheck were to stop, I would have to find a new place of both employment and worship. That is the economic reality of my life, and often I wish it were not. I find it utterly absurd that I should have to pretend otherwise, and make some sort of ham-fisted, arbitrary reassurance (in the form of a formal membership) to the people who employ me. If the fact that I’ve shown up every time I said I would for the past 200 weeks doesn’t do it, and the consistent tithing doesn’t do it, and the extra time invested in relational time outside of the service times doesn’t do it, why the hell will signing some piece of paper do it?
I maintain that there should be some sort of separate category for people like me who are asked to strike the delicate balance between working as an employee of Christ’s Body and living sacrificially for Christ’s Body. The last thing we need is another bogus hoop to jump through. I cannot tell you how reassuring it would be to hear someone in church leadership acknowledge this reality, and insist that a membership only be accepted when free from financial considerations.
D) When it’s time to go to the woodshed, it’s going to be relationship that pulls us through, not membership. My former boss and his wife were members of the church. His confession was made, and his resignation was accepted, and that’s it. He’s gone, moved up Morphea’s way. There was no glorious, spectacular trauma to the body. No passionate outcries, no down-to-the-wire biting church votes. Relationships were just… ended. Giving and attendance remain the same, thank God, and everyone is doing their best not to miss our friend. A formalized membership meant very little when it came to actually preserving our ties. So… if anyone’s worried about Biblical discipline and relational strength, what’s a membership got to do with it?
Wait for it… Wait…. for… it….
Salty) Doctrinal purity is a pain the ass. Our statement of faith actually includes a statement that we are a pre-trib church. Wow. So, I have to have all my eschatological arguments in place before I can join all this church fun? Or, can I just sign off on it without thinking about it?
One extreme is going to produce an endless stream of classes, sermons, debates, charts, graphs, pie charts (for the seven bowls, dumbass), etc… etc… etc… The other extreme is a group of people who have ignorantly signed their names to a statement of faith that they have done no homework on whatsoever.
I have no opinion on pre, post, or mid trib. I will have no opinion whatsoever until it either happens, or Jesus tells me what’s what. I would actually enjoy a well taught class on the end time prophesies, and I might develop a personal position on these issues as I study, but in the end, they are totally irrelevant to the kind of Christ Follower I am today.
I will not ever sign a statement of faith until it includes a statement about the grace we are going to give one another in non-essential issues of our faith. This is a deal breaker.
Now… I realize that there needs to be some sort of statement of both belonging and of accountability. People need to know whether or not I am going to be in this through thick and thin, hard times as well as harvest times. I also realize that we need to reserve the right to discern. I realize that, when making a serious choice for the church body, when wisdom and maturity is needed the most, that the opinion of The Guy Who Showed up Three Weeks Ago and Has Only Thus Far Spent Time Telling The Pastors How They Did it at His Old Church Back Home, is not to be taken as seriously as the opinion of The Lady Who Has Seen The Church Through Trouble and Peace With a Thankful and Gracious Heart for The Past Seven Years.
I also am aware of the fact that we cannot, for example, put people up as teachers in front of classrooms and seminars who hold wildly divergent ideas about doctrine (yeah, I said it… the “D” word.. get over it) then the rest of the majority of the body.
For many years, I have held the belief that churches, or any organization whose primary purpose is kingdom work, need structure and clear guidelines. I believed, and I still believe, that people need a clear sense of vision and leadership, and that too much freedom will result in sloppy thinking and trouble trouble trouble.
But does it really?
One of the things that softened my heart in all this came from one of our most conservative elders, with whom I disagree on a regular basis. He said, “Chad, I guess for us, it’s a statement of relational commitment to this body. It’s a statement to my brothers and sisters that I will be there for them.”
I liked that. I think I can get behind something like that, but I am pretty sure that’s not membership, at least in the way we label it. Membership has to do in our current context with doctrine and church history and compliance with church policies. Perhaps we at the local church level need to create something like a Statement of Christian Relational Commitment. Wow… that sounds pretty formal too. Sheesh.
The floor is open for discussion.