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Church Membership: What Is It Good For?

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Several months after arriving in Port William, Jayber Crow received an anonymous folded note under the door of his barber shop inviting him to a “Worter Dranking” party on Saturday night at the Grandstand – a spot in the woods overlooking the road heading down into the valley. Jayber says that this invitation to this informal, “off-the-record” gathering was the first sign of his acceptance by the Port William society. The invitation communicated, “You’re one of us. We need you and you need us. Your life is woven into the story of this place alongside ours.” (From Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow.)

Last month Nijay Gupta wrote about changing the language in churches from membership to partnership. He’s on to something here. Membership feels like a misplaced relic we discovered in the church basement; we do not know what it is does but we are too afraid to throw it away in case it may be important. We want membership to a local church to do what Jayber’s invitation did – call us into a particular society of Jesus where we are named and known. Where we can fulfill our unique purpose within a greater collective purpose. Where others say, “Yeah, you’re one of us.”

And yet this kind of membership is rare in a world that is infatuated with size, efficiency, production quality, self-sufficiency, and privacy. We long for partnership but we settle for coffee hour in the church fellowship hall after the service. We long for communitas – a society bound together for a purpose beyond the group. In Greek, it’s koinonia. In English, it’s that old word fellowship which comes to us from the business world to describe a partnership where money has been put down for a joint undertaking. Fellowship means you have skin in the game. You have made an investment – a risk – with someone else trusting that together it will payoff. Churches are afraid to ask for much from her members for fear that they will leave. But by lowering the bar we weaken the bonds. If membership does not require a commitment – if it is to be a membership without vows – then we get an association, not a true fellowship. 

A true fellowship is formed when there is:

  • a powerful shared experience or story. 
  • purpose beyond just keeping the group together.
  • dependence on the others to fulfill a greater purpose.
  • a willingness to pay a price (surrender) for the benefit of the group and it’s purpose.
  • clarity about who is in the fellowship. 

There are many Christians today who are leaving the local church behind because of exhaustion, disappointment, disillusionment, and even spiritual abuse. If you are in this group, I want to be sensitive to the pain and hurt that you have experienced. I do not know what course God’s path of healing will take in your life. And I’m sorry that the one place that was supposed to be a place of nurture and care caused harm. 

But there are others who have also left who have found it easy to leave because the church never called them to anything beyond their own happiness and keeping the organization going. Never said, “we need your full and unique self here.” Never made any invitations or demands. Never asked questions. It’s hard to stay when you know that in leaving you won’t be missed. It’s hard to stay committed to something when breaking your vows goes unnoticed or when confession is greeted with a smile and a shrug. When the church goes easy on sin, it says to its members, “Your life and integrity do not really matter to us.  You are on your own.”  The church must first make a safe space where the hopes and commitments of members seeking to live faithful and holy lives are honored and reciprocated. Then – and only then – can those gathering be invited into real partnership.   

Our response as churches cannot be to discard membership – paring down our commitments and keeping our loyalties nimble.  Instead we must become desperate for the costly fellowship that the Holy Spirit can make. Now is not the time to distance ourselves from one another or from the church but to double down on our commitment to the partnership of the saints concretely known and experienced in a local church. To belong to this society demands going “all-in” and our going “all-in” must be offered to a particular place and people and – yes, even particular leaders. It requires placing ourselves under a greater authority. This can be done in healthy ways that are not cult-like – that protect individuals from spiritual abuse and heavy-handed church discipline. 

But to those of us who choose this course, we should expect such a submission to feel a little like death – and then the flowing in of resurrection life.  

[Photo: Drew Coffman, CC via Flickr]

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