I was talking recently with a group about the idea of church membership. Is it biblical language? What does it mean to be a member of a church? Or a member of the church? A question arose about what we do about a person who comes into our midst who is not baptized but wants to identify with the congregation.
My response was that the language of "membership" is not really biblical. Was I off base?
A person who was in the midst of the early church, for example, and wanted to be a disciple was taken through three years of catechesis (teaching) to teach them the way of life. I don't know if they had language of members and non-members. Someone help me here with that if you know. Often at the end of this long period the person was baptized. Was this person called a "non-member" during that time? Were they left out of meals or the Lord's Supper?
Because we make "membership" synonomous with baptism, we draw some artificial lines for those who come into our communities and want to learn and understand before making such a big commitment. We hold them as visitors until they are initiated, but is there a way to invite people into our fellowships while gently nurturing them as the early church must have done through months and years of teaching? And in that way they feel a part but realize they are being led and taught toward the end of being shaped in the image of Christ, and baptism is a culmination of this union with Christ.
Too often it seems we, on the one hand, passively let people who have not been taught our beliefs in Christ be called members or, on the other hand, we take them as betweeners or visitors until they are baptized. At Woodmont Church of Christ in Nashville we speak of "joining the journey." This allows a person to be on journey of seeking the Lord and a Christian to acknowledge that we are on that same journey together. We are all on a journey toward the image of Christ. This language itself does not solve all the problems, however, and we must still do the important work of nurturing new attendees to become part of the body and learn what it means to be shaped in Christ's image and be joined with him and the body in baptism.