Church Membership in the Postmodern World

One of the mantras of both the church growth movement and the emerging church movement is that the old notion of membership is dead. Folks are interested in joining the church, these folks tell us. It seems like an outdated notion to be a “member” of a congregation. And so “growing churches” like Church of the Resurrection and Cedar Ridge Community Church pretty much cast aside the notion of church membership in the traditional sense.

I know that membership seems strange to me at times. When I think of membership, I remember joining a variety of clubs when I was a kid. I remember writing off to join the Spiderman Fan Club advertised in the comics that were a part of my life. After several weeks, the envelope would arrive with my name on it. It would tear into it and find the welcome letter, the guide to member benefits, and finally the most important part, the official membership card. I would take that care and put in a safe space so that all would know that I was an official member of the Spiderman fan club.

I wonder some times if the issue of membership in the church isn’t really about peoples unwillingness to affiliate, but rather that we have so watered down the meaning of membership that it doesn’t mean anything. “Come on and join our church,” we’ve said. “You don’t really have to make much of a committment to this place — we just want to get you on our roles.” Yes, this is a sweeping generalization and oversimplification. And yet, is it? Do we really hold “members” to a different standard in most churches?

When I talk about membership with folks, I most often talk about entering into the covenant community. If membership is to mean anything it must mean that we are entering into a covenant with one another, a covenant that is as strong as the marriage covenant. What would it mean for folks to stand before the community as say, “I take you as my partners in faith, to be together from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till God separates us”? If marriage is a sign of the relationship between Christ and Church, shouldn’t the relationship between church partners be likewise as binding.

We talk a lot in the emerging church movement about the desire and need for community among contemporary people. Folks want to belong. They want to feel a part of something larger than themselves. Maybe covenant partnership is one of the ways that we begin to carry this out. We don’t get rid of membership, rather we fill membership with meaning and significance, and we develop rituals and symbols which help folks to gain that special feeling of belonging that I had when I got my Spiderman membership card.

This isn’t about creating a hierarchy (although human pride and sinfulness lead toward that tendency). What it does say is that some of us have chosen to go deeper in our discipleship and that we have pledged our loyalty to a community which helps to reveal God to us. All are welcomed into the community with open arms. But it is not cheap grace (to use Bonhoeffer’s descriptor). It costs. It has responsbilities. It requires a covenant.

My appointment is here. Gotta go.

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