‘Church membership’: is it dead and dusted?

13 May

This week we had a faculty discussion about church membership. Most pastors I know say that the majority of people attending their churches do not wish to be 'members' of the church.
What has changed? People are participating in Christian community, but resisting the formal expressions of 'membership'.
Is this a good thing, or a serious problem?
I see some big opportunities here to reclaim a biblical understanding of church, and of Christian identity.

Here are some paragraphs from the paper I presented:

The genius of a Baptist approach to ecclesiology is that context and experience are permitted a legitimate role in shaping our theology and practice of church.
The danger of such an approach is that by focussing on context and experience we lose the capacity to understand them theologically. When that happens other factors, such as sociology, corporate governance models and most of all consumer preferences, take over and define who we are and how we proceed.
The very factors which gave vitality to our theology can also destroy it—and our church ceases to be church.

These concerns are well expressed in the following paragraph from Daniel Migliore’s chapter on ‘The New Community’ in Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (p.251). After acknowledging the many challenges in church life today and the discrepancy between high-sounding theory and actual practice, he writes:

        Missing in the individualized, privatized, bureaucratic, and cosmetic forms of Christianity today is  any real understanding of the interconnectedness of life that is expressed in all the basic doctrines and symbols of classical Christian faith. Christians confess their faith in the triune God whose reality is constituted by the welcoming love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians believe in God the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, who wills not to be alone but to have a covenant partner; whose costly grace in Jesus Christ inaugurates a new freedom for relationship with God and with others; and whose transforming Spirit establishes a new community-in-freedom that anticipates the redemption of all creation. The Christian understanding of God as trinitarian communion and of salvation as the free participation of creatures in God’s “society of love” highlights the importance of the church for Christian faith and theology.

Migliore goes on to describe five contemporary models of the church and then presents his own constructive argument for the life of the church as defined both  by the ‘call to communion’ with God, made possible through the Word, worship and the sacraments, and the ‘call to mission’ with God, through the gifts and ministries of all the people.  Central to his argument is the conviction that Christian community is about participation in the divine community. Church membership is fundamentally about the trinitarian life of God, into which we are invited. 

The called-together community, the ecclesia of God, is only possible because membership (as participation in community) is something God does. It is a divine habit, where ‘habit’ is something in which one lives. God lives in and as community, and invites us into community.
Membership is therefore a divine calling. It is an action of God.
Membership is also a gift: of belonging, community and place.  In the ‘interconnectedness’ to which Migliore refers, human identity is constituted through  relationship.
Membership of a community is not an inherent threat to our freedom, but the means of its enactment. In community, we have a place to be—one of the earliest ideas of salvation. In community, we may have a role and make a contribution. In community, we belong and receive support, affirmation and love.

Membership is also a mutual commitment, a response not only to God’s invitation but also to the gift of others and their love.
One of the specific ways in which Baptists have sought to express this mutuality of commitment is through baptism. Historically, baptism has meant nothing other than incorporation into the body of Christ, the local church. It is bodily and it is communal.  It is like a birth and means new birth, and no one is born without a family. Wherever baptism has been separated from ‘church membership’, each has been deprived of its meaning, spiritual significance and life-giving power.

The tragic reality is that incorporation into the body of Christ has been regularized and systematized by quasi-legal frameworks, which have defined church membership through ‘constitutions’, rules and bylaws.

The Spirit seeks constantly to embody God’s own freedom for us, to call into being a body of Christ, in which members participate in the life and mission of the ever-creative God.

I am well aware of the cultural and social factors which militate against these ideas of membership. I guess my hope is that the Christian community might discover its identity as a counter-cultural movement, a community of the Spirit.  Today, sharing some ideas in this way, a colleague called me a 'dreamer': what I was talking about he said was a bit like the Kingdom of God. I happily plead guilty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *