Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Church membership

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.


Greg Kendall-Ball said...

This post made me think of the multimedia genius that was (and still is) the Oregon Trail!

Well, perhaps it didn't make me think of the game itself, but more the idea of wagon trains heading west.

Mike Cope did a series last year entitled "The Sacred Journey." One metaphor he didn't use, but I think would apply, would be this idea of a wagon train, similar to the Donner Party, but without the cannibalism (although Christians have been accused of this, right?!?). Anyway...

From what I remember of my U.S. History, which isn't a lot (they seemed to skimp on this in the South African school system), these groups of travellers were the main factor in the development of the Western United States. Basically, a few people, families, etc., would gather together under the guidance of a trail boss, a cook, some other various and sundry personnel, and head off into the West. I don't think you could just up and join a train as it happened to pass by you. I think there were some expectations by both the leaders of the wagon train, and the people paying for the journey. Regardless, these bands of people (and there were many, many groups all heading in the same direction, not always following the same path), were identified as a group, had "insiders" and "outsiders" and relied on each other for safety, support, protection, food, etc. I can think of a number of ways to deepen this rich metaphor, but I'm at work and don't have the time right now.

Keith Brenton said...

Another dimension of our "membership" terminology is its effect on those we exclude by it.

If I'm not mistaken (won't be the first time), the Epistles use the word "members" describe only those belonging to a family or household, and parts of a body ... usually Christ's body, the church.

Those outside that body don't understand these definitions, not having been exposed to them. They hear and see the world's definition of membership, which involves dues, benefits, responsibilities, exclusivity, conformity, even uniformity.

The "in" definition involves family, individuality, connectedness, essentiality (as of an eye to the body).

So it may be biblical language, but there are at least two different definitions.

Inextricably tied to the term is the question of who, then, belongs.

Only Christ can answer. No one comes to the Father but by Him. The Lord adds to the church.

So I think we should err, if we must, on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.

I would rather be disappointed to not see someone in heaven whose heart I thought I knew, than to meet someone there whom I had consigned to hell in my heart.

(Or to not see them where I ended up as a result of my judgmental heart!)

It's scary that we'll be known by our "fruits."

Would anyone recognize me as a Christian based on that criterion?

David U said...

Super post, Greg. Our heritage is rich in exclusiveness, because it was a priority to be "unique and distinct" from other believers......therefore we for sure better be equally exclusive of non-believers.
I love your language of "joining the journey'!! It communicates inclusiveness, instead of the opposite.

Thanks for challenging us!

salguod said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm curious about what you say about the 'early church'. Three years of study prior to baptism surprises me. What time period are you refering to as 'early' and where did you learn about this three year study? Perhaps it's obvious, but I find it hard to believe and I'd like to learn more about where it comes from. In my understanding of baptism - I come from a Church of Christ background as well (ICOC, actually) - it is closely connected to salvation, being the point of forgiveness. I am striving to get away from using it a litmus test for ones salvation, but I still see it as necessary to be saved. In that context, it's hard to fathom the church making folks wait 3 years to get baptised.


Greg Taylor said...

I'm sorry. I should have clarified. When I was talking about early church, I was talking about the 2nd and 3rd century churches. A chapter in the book I co-authored, Down in the River to Pray, clarifies this further. Granted, in Acts, most of the baptisms were immediate, but that doesn't mean all had just heard about God or Christ for the first time. There is a tension between this immediacy and the need to teach rightly and move toward a authentic discipleship decision in baptism.

Rusty Peterman said...

Are we confusing our current use of the term "member" with the original NT use of the word? We apply "member" and "membership" to a variety of organizations and causes.

But the NT uses the word in reference to Christians and how closely they relate to one another. It figuratively speaks of parts of a body (arms, feets, eyes, etc). Paul said: "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Romans 12:4-5).

I non-believer can't relate to believers in this way--as a vital member with others related to one another in Christ. But a non-believer can join us on the journey of seeking God. I like the phrase, "joining the journey."

c said...

The line for salvation needs to fade into the background and the importance of being a pilgram in his land must take center stage. You folks are right to say that the terminology of country clubees can be so destructive to those on the perimeters of soceity. Moreover, that language has made an easier way for people to be admirers of Jesus instead of followers. Membership has made discipleship into something unattainable, something only pious, devote Christian seek. So then being a "member" of a church can mean relying on cheap grace to get us through life and unto heaven.

Should a distinct characteristic of the universal church be inclusion? I think so. St. Benedict allowed any wandering guest or journeyman to enter into their community and be received as a "member" (so as long as they didn't make excessive demands or be full of fault). If the community exclused those on the outside, then wouldn't that mean exclusion of the Messiah as well? Dorothy Day knew this and practiced this a discipline with all she encountered. (something that doesn't come naturally) With this mindset of inclusion, then the importance of belonging to the community surpases believing correctly. May we all be pilgrams entering new territory every day just like Abramam.

Kenny Payne said...

Since the church is simply the people of God in the world to expand God's kingdom, shouldn't people be accepted in our assemblies based solely on their willingness to attend. As a missionary in Ukraine I have seen people attend our services for an amazing number of different reasons, some holy, some not so holy, but whatever the reason they originally attended many made the decision to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ. My stance in ministry for over 20 years has been if you come you are part of what we are doing. Never has this policy produced an undesirable result, at least to my mind.
Jesus let anyone who wanted to be with him have that access. Some grew to be disciples, some stopped following. But Jesus kept the door open always, if someone was on the outside, they were their by their own choice.

Anonymous said...

"Join us on the journey"

How nice! In contrast to more exclusive term, "membership".

Not too long ago, John E of Houston, came back after several years to do another analysis of "the membership", to check on the progress made since his last visit.

Before "the questionnaire" was completed in the hour following worship services by "the members" a verbal announcement made, "This next session is for members only. Therefore, will all "visitors please leave."

It might have more appropriately been announced, "Will anyone, who is not a member of our exclusive club, please leave the premises and don't let the door hit you on your way out into our big parking lot."

I predict some of those "visitors" will no doubt go somewhere else where they feel a bit more "welcome" to "join the journey."

Amen to the "seeker" or "visitor friendly" phrase, "join us on the

Once again, this proves some churches are definitely more "tuned in" to communicating effecively with "the lost" or "seekers".

At least the small group we attend on Sunday nights in homes has attempted to be sensitive as we reach out to "fill our empty chair" with those who would "join us on our journey".

I plan to share this refreshing phrase tomorrow night. Thanks!