November 2016

Whatever Happened to Church Membership?   Well to start with a whole generation came along, mine, the baby boomers (1946-1964) who are notorious non-joiners. So don’t feel bad, church, in our cussed independence we were hard on the Rotary, the PTO, the fraternities, and even the bowling leagues. We prefer bowling alone as one observer put it. Then churches changed the way they measured their strength. Where once they talked about their membership now they talk about their average worship attendance and budget. Some of this had to do with finding a fairer way to parse out contributions to the connectional churches. It is not surprising these days to hear that a congregation’s average worship attendance is significantly larger than its membership. A wind of reform blew in some parts of the contemporary church where participation in various activities (small groups, spiritual gifts discernment, mission activities beyond the wall of the local church, in depth study of the study of the Bible) were viewed as the new minimum requirement for membership. This seemed to be a return to the ancient church which practiced generous hospitality to all, but knew that not everyone who visited in worship was ready for the greater rigors of discipleship. And let’s not forget the church’s loss of esteem in the eyes of society in recent years. Where once church membership was the respectable and expected thing to do, now it is considered, at least by the outsiders, as one more quaint but outdated practice of the resident aliens who call themselves disciples of Jesus. So, let’s agree, church membership has fallen onto hard times. Can it be rescued?  Should it be rescued? I guess only time will tell with the first question. But I will take on the second one and answer it, YES. Let me count the three reasons why church membership still matters. There ought to be a way for those who were guests at their own baptism (infants, children) to claim the promises that were made for them, to say for themselves “I renounce evil,” “I will resist injustice and oppression,” and “I confess Jesus as Savior and Lord.” Paul calls this sort of step of intentionality, “growing up.” There ought to be a way that those who take the community of faith seriously to differentiate themselves from those who are only there to check it out. If persons are willing to commit their prayers, their time, their money, their talents, and their witness to build up the congregation, they should be able to recognize the others who are playing the game at that level. Most times it won’t matter, but sometimes you need to know “who here is serious?” There ought to be a way to self-identify as one of the resident aliens. Say you attend such and such a church and no one objects. There are tourists everywhere: casinos, sports arenas, microbreweries, mega churches. But say you are a member of such and such a church and you invite scrutiny. “What’s your problem? Why do you do that when almost nobody else does these days?” You might find yourself pushed to blurt out a witness. “Yes,” you might say, “I believe in Jesus and Jesus’ Church. And I’m in so deep I belong to this particular community of faith....

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