Finker offers a some great comments in my previous post. He raises in particular the ambiguity around membership responsibilities and privileges.
I grew up in the 1960’s, a disciple of a decentralized notion of power and authority. As a good United Methodist pastor, I practice an open table, welcoming all to participate in the sacraments. My normal tendency is to cast aside institutional trappings of power and control. Thus, membership vows seem too controlling to me, too much about who is in and who is out. After all, doesn’t Christ welcome all to the table and doesn’t God want to redeem all (drawing on my Arminian heritage)?
So why then worry about any sort of membership covenant. Part of the reason is that it is part of the churches story. I remember that the early church, concerned about martyrdom and persecution, was very careful about letting folks into receiving the sacraments. It was a matter of safety. In fact, this 40 days that we are in the middle of is directly connected to the time or preparation for first communion.
The deeper reason for me is that being a part of a church is a risky thing. To fully participate in the church is to lay one’s relationship with God on the table. This begins to get to issues of our core identity and our understandings of God. As Howard Thurman reminded us, the church is a place where we share our experiences of deity with one another for confirmation and accountability. Although my friend Joe Myers would point to the differences in spacial relationships, I believe that the basic practices of faith (things like prayers, study, worship, etc.) DO lead folks into an level of intimacy greater than normal social relationships. This involves risk, and just like in marriage, that risk is offset by a covenantal relationship.
So what do we do about the insider / outsider issue? Maybe the issue is one of servant leadership (to use a buzz word). That is, when one becomes a member of the covenant community, the focus is less on what is added and more on what is given up. In some churches it includes things like no longer being about to park in those special visitor parking places close to the building. Just as in marriage, the focus may be on sacrifice, knowing it leads to the greater good of love of God and love of neighbor. I’m still not quite sure how this plays out, and would appreciate your thoughts along the way.