Membership Has Its Practices: Membership in Missional Communities After Christendom

imagesYesterday morning I posted on Twitter (@fitchest) :

The local church doesn’t demand sanctification upon joining. It requires commitment to the communal processes of sanctification upon joining

To me this is worth thinking about because it gets at the conundrum missional communities face when we start to think about membership within a decidedly post-Christendom culture where those who seek to commit to us have little formation in the Christian life. How do we discern membership? What requirements (encouragements) are necessary to make joining a body possible? To even make a social body of Christ a reality?

Many churches have tossed out the whole idea of membership out. Church becomes in essence a consumer activity, people coming and going to the activities as they best fit what I need or feel compelled to join. This is not church. This is not a covenant community,

On the other hand, the other standard response to membership is for churches to require a level of sanctification from a new member upon entering our Christian community. The church requires a certainty to believe certain things in a belief statement, a level of commitment to justice and/or sharing of money, tithes? a certain standard of sexual maturity? In my tradition, churches have even asked members to change smoking habits, drinking habits, sexual habits, swearing habits and other habits unbecoming to Christians before entry into membership. This was all too common years ago in the holiness movements.

There is a third option that I believe makes the most sense for communities in mission. Here local churches in mission focus on the new members’ willingness to commit to a set of communal practices that define the community, what the community does, who it worships, and how its sociality is birthed in the work of the Spirit.

To join in with a community is to join in with its life together as defined by a set of practices. (Check out in this regard Life Together by Bonhoeffer) Such practices should be obvious and part of the visible display of what it means to be a member. These practices should includes patterns of mutual submission, speaking truth in love and receiving it, Matt 18:15-20 and “binding and loosing,” the submitting to the Lord’s Table and the hearing of Word. These practices are the means by which space is made for the the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. We therefore are not looking for a certain level of sanctification from the new member/believer, we are looking for a commitment to join together in the communal processes of sanctification. To me, the process of submitting in mutual submission to what God is doing here is where not only the new member’s sanctification becomes worked out, but through his or her working it out the community itself also gets sanctified. This is what I take to be central to the Anabaptist understanding of church.

To make the commitment to practices central to membership in the local community (as opposed to standards of belief or behavior) changes the way we deal with many sin issues. We welcome all, yet that welcome is also into a mutually transforming community under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. Here in the processes of mutual transformation, including being present with each other in the confession/listening to each other’s sins, God works the sanctification of us all. Such a community demands that the specific practices of the community are spelled out as our rule of life together. There should be an initiation process that introduces the new member to these practices: what do we do when we worship? Receive the Eucharist? study the Bible? Have conflict? Commit to be with the poor? Be with our children? Commit to be married? Pray together in the neighborhood? Carry on leadership structures? It demands that leadership always be part of the community and in submission to the community to assure that the kind of cultish abuse so common in hierarchical churches be thwarted. This approach to membership will change the way we think about people with obvious sin in their lives, or at least more obvious than the sin in our own lives is obvious to us (of course we may need these folk to reveal sin in our lives because we have become either so used to our own sin or good at hiding it from other people.) Lastly, it would be foolhardy to think that there will be no doctrinal beliefs that will be part of the membership process.  Rather what I am suggesting is that regarding the outworking of sin issues, we must learn to think differently in terms of membership and acceptance.  We must learn to trust the work of sanctification by the Spirit within the community. The local church shouldn’t demand sanctification upon joining. It should focus on each person’s commitment to the communal processes of sanctification upon joining

I know many churches, missional communities who gather on the basis of a set of practices of the Christian faith as opposed to a set of standards of the Christian faith. Take a look at this post from The Story in Sarnia, Ontario for instance. Take at look at this church in Miami Florida. What do you think? What are the dangers here?  What problems are there when we focus on standards for membership as opposed to commitments to communal practices?

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