Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Membership Requirements

In preparation for writing a paper next week, I've been doing some thinking these days about church membership. In a previous post, I remarked -- in a tangential sort of way -- about the sorts of professions that the early church saw as incompatible with living a Christian life (prostitute, musician, soldier, etc.), and wondered what sorts of professions we might put on that list today. Lately I'm wondering if the church would have the disciplinary wherewithal to make use of such a list even if we had one. If someone of the "wrong" profession wished to join, what church would or could say "We'd love to have you, but you'll have to make these significant changes before you can be part of us, starting (but not ending) with your job."

On the one hand, the gospel seems to mandate a rather inclusive attitude about belonging to the church. Jesus' circle was drawn with the wideness of God's mercy, encompassing many people who the offical religious leaders of his day rejected. On the other hand, what sort of group is it that expects and asks nothing of its members? That doesn't comport with the gospel either. Jesus talked about laying down one's life to follow him.

Some have articulated this tension by speaking about the "low stoop" but "long aisle" on the house of the church. It doesn't take much to get in the church, but it takes a while to walk up to the front and make the life-changing promises of discipleship to Jesus. Different church traditions seem to emphasize these two sides of the coin, with infant baptizers focusing on the low stoop, and those from the anabaptist traditions emphasizing the long aisle. But of course, in whatever Christian tradition, both these elements should find some expression.

As I was thinking about all this, I uncovered a piece of paper while doing some archeological research in an old basement file cabinet. It is a list of the steps down the aisle that were once part of my home church's membership process, way back in the day when I first got married and Debra and I joined the church together. The document is entitled "Joining (CHURCH NAME HERE): Steps toward Assimilation."

It includes a checklist with the following items:
  • Attend membership inquiry class (three sessions)
  • Attend council meeting (the governing board of the church)
  • Attend committee meeting
  • Attend fellowship event
  • Meet with the pastor
  • Meet with district council member

It also provides some well-written rationale for these requirements (to be introduced to a broader segment of the church than you could come to know during worship services alone; to find ways to use your unique abilities within our congregation), and encourages potential members to see the "requirements for membership not as hurdles to be jumped, but as steps toward fuller participation in the life of the church."

I wonder what the membership process is like these days at my home church.

Or at yours.

And I wonder whether the requirements -- if there are any -- have more to do with the perpetuation and health of the institution, or with the steps individuals and groups need to take to become more Christlike. And whether those two things should seem like such radically different categories.

"I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member" -- Groucho Marx


Mary said...

I like the "low stoop"/ long aisle" imagery.

There's also a difference b/n members and office-holders, with office-holders being held to higher standards. It's as if being a "regular" member doesn't take that much, but if you're going to be an elder or a deacon, well, now, you've gotta have your ducks in a row.

I've also heard/read that church with tougher membership requirements tend to grow faster (numerically) than those without.

Just some ponderings...

o1mnikent said...

This is an excellent post. Linking membership to discipleship prevents the church from becoming a glorified (no pun intended) country club.