I’m not sure when the church – that is the global community of Christ followers called to be a redemptive presence in the world – the church became a membership organization. A church historian could probably enlighten us on that.
What I do know is what tradition tells us – that the church began, before the term “church” or any kind of structure was given it, as a group of Jesus followers who took their way of life to various ancient cities where communities of mutual support sprang up around the counter cultural, redemptive ideas of Jesus. Those loose communities became something of a movement and in the fourth century were lent political credibility by the emperor of Rome and became an organized institution. Centuries later movements like the Reformation and the Radical Reformation gave the church diversity of thought and we became a global web of loosely interwoven institutions and somewhere in all of that the idea arose that people should “join”, should become “members” of these institutions. That idea has come forward to today to suggest to us that one is a “member” of a church in almost exactly the way one is a member of vegetable co-op, or a member a civic organization, or a member of a club, or a member of Costco. I mean we do serve sample size food and beverage in worship once a month.
Wherever the idea of church membership began, I’m sure it met the needs of the church at that time, but I do wish I could go back to that point whenever it was and let the people making that decision know how “membership,” a concept intended to serve the mission of the church, would begin to shape the mission of the church.
If I had a nickel for every conversation I’ve been a part of that centered on membership in the church, but had nothing whatsoever to do with the work of the church – well, let’s just say the Once and For All Fund would be in even better shape. That’s a shameless plug from episode 4. If you haven’t heard it yet, go back and give it a listen. The idea of belonging IS important in a faith community, but we’ve become sometimes a bit too focused on stringent definitions of how one belongs or what it means when one belongs; we’ve become a bit focused on this membership thing. Sometimes that makes people feel a sense of entitlement about the church instead of presenting an open invitation to everyone in the decision making process. It can cause a sense of “us vs them” in relation to other congregations or other Christian traditions. The sense of belonging that can be gained by calling one’s self a member can come at the expense of a felt sense of belonging for those who for one reason or another would rather not formally join. And my personal least favorite, the tail so often wagging the dog of the church – an obsession with measuring the worth of a church first and foremost by how many members belong. How did we get from “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…,” to “how big is your church, pastor?” It tempts the church into a kind of consumerist mentality and just begs church leaders to make a product out of the church rather than a community. Ok, I’ll get off that soapbox – for now.
Here’s the thing though. The way that becoming an membership organization has shaped the way we think about church has not always been helpful, but there IS good reason to have a kind of understanding of just who we’re talking about when we say First Baptist Church of Rochester.
First of all, we may be a spiritual community in the Kingdom of God, but we’re also a legal entity in the town of Brighton, New York. We have property and spend money and make decisions that have legal implications. We have to have people who make those decisions and hold property in trust and generally interact with the legal and governing systems around us. Those people have to have a formal connection to the organization in order to do those things.
There are also in this world, things from which we want to delineate ourselves. As much as we don’t want to be exclusive, we also don’t want to be a leaf tossed in the wind. Christ calls us to stand for the vulnerable and we can’t do that without drawing a line between ourselves and the forces that cause the ills of the world.
And perhaps most importantly of all, the sense of belonging that comes from a formally stated intent to be part is a good thing and belonging is something the church should offer.
We also know that we’re living in a world that is becoming less and less concerned with “joining” in general. People are often content to just hang around organizations who might wish for a more formal connection or commitment. So if membership is the way the church measures its success, we’re in for some rough years ahead.
In short, what we need is a way to think about how we each, as individuals, are connected to this community that doesn’t draw a hard line over against those who aren’t or don’t want to be members. That’s why I think we’re better off to think of the way our community is comprised in relationship terms than in membership terms.
Think about how you maintain and define your relationships with the people in your life. I know that I have a number of acquaintances who I could call on right now who would give me the shirt off their back if I asked. I know they’re my friends and I’m theirs, but we’ve never once had a conversation about whether or not we’re friends. I have very close friends to whom I’ve never said, “You’re my best friend.” I am deeply dedicated and loyal to people who have never said to me, “I’d like you to be my friend.” And yet, somehow the relationships even without definition are rich and meaningful and supportive. We belong to one another.
But, I also have relationships – one in particular – for which I and those in the relationship with me have seen fit to talk a bit about what the relationship means to us and what we want it to look like. You might think this is crazy, but with one such person I went through a whole 6 week preparation course to help us think through our hopes and potential snags in relationship then we stood in front of a big crowd of people and made a public promise to always make that relationship the most important one. I know, kind of intense right. Anna and I defined our relationship and we made specific, verbal, stated commitments to it. I’ve done the same with some of the family to whom I was born. But I’ve got lots of relationships that are deeply meaningful for which I’ve not gone to quite that length.
So which of these are valid relationships? Which are important relationships? Which ones sustain me as a person? Which ones am I committed to? All of them, of course.
What if we thought about how our faith community is comprised in the same way? What if you thought about your relationship to your church in the same way? If you want to be a part of this community how do you do it? In the same way you might become a friend with someone – meet them, say hello, ask them a bit about who they are, share a bit about who you are. When speaking of a faith community that functions at a couple of levels. You can get to know us corporately by asking about what’s most important to us, how we make decisions, visiting our campus or online campus, and what not; but you can also get to know us interpersonally in conversation with folks. If you are already in that kind of relationship with FBCR, guess what. You’re a part of the community. Like a full part of the community. You’re not a visitor or on a second tier or on the outside looking in. You’re part of FBCR just because you’re in relationship to us – and you didn’t even have to say a word about it. There are others though – many who are listening in fact – who have wanted to define that relationship a bit further; who’ve wanted to make a bit more of a commitment and who have wanted to feel a deeper commitment toward themselves. They have entered something like the covenant relationship that we think of in marriage. They’ve had a conversation with the pastor or another leader in the church who have told them they are a valued part of the congregation and are welcome as a part; and needed in service. In turn they have pledged to support the people and the work of the congregation; the life of the community, and to participate in the decisions, to hold in trust the property, and to be in relationship with the people of FBCR. These are those we have traditionally called, “members,” but who are so much more than that.
I wonder, in fact, let this be your first thought for consideration over the next couple of days – I wonder what might change about the church if we thought of ourselves as in relationship with a faith community rather than as members of an organization. What do you think?
Here’s another thought for your perusal. How would you define your relationship to First Baptist? Are there things that you need from the relationship? Are there constructive, generative ways to avail yourself to those things or ask for those things? You notice I say “constructive” and “generative,” that’s because another implication of the consumerist mentality has been that when we, as church members aren’t getting what we need, we tend to think of ourselves like customers not getting what we paid for. Rather, are there things you need from your community, from other participants in the community, from the leaders in the community that you could constructively ask for or even help provide for others? Conversely, are there things about being in this community that are meaningful and sustaining for you? And have you let anyone in the community know just how meaningful those things are? Have you offered to help support those efforts or causes or relationships that are so important to you?
Lastly, here’s your point for action. What does reflecting on your relationship to FBCR suggest you need to do? Do you need to reconnect? Jump in and serve (more on that in a later episode)? Reconnect? Maybe the idea of covenant relationship sounds like something that would be beneficial to you. Let’s chat. Give me a call or an email and talk about what that would look like for you?
The next episode of facets of community will be up on Friday, then I’ll see you on Sunday.