Below is a copy of the article I wrote for our monthly newsletter…
Membership, a Horrible Word for an Important Concept
Let me be clear: I do not like the term “membership” when used in reference to churches. Of course, I cannot do anything about it, it is the term the Book of Church Order uses, and it has become such a part of our culture that we’re probably past the point of being able to change it. Regardless, I truly believe it to be an awful word for the concept it’s intended to express.
My dissatisfaction with the use of the word “member” is a response to the fact that it is a term typically used to indicate one’s privileges within an exclusive group like a club, lodge, society, or sorority. As wonderful as these kinds of groups can sometimes be, membership within them is primarily about privilege. Membership gives one the ability to demand something from the group. A member of a yacht club, for example, can expect the privilege of renting a slip or using the clubhouse; a member of a sorority can expect the privilege of attending private functions. While the specific requirements for membership in groups may vary, they are typically intended to draw a clear line between those who are “in” and those who do not belong.
Membership in the church is different. One does not “pledge” into the church nor pay yearly dues to belong. One need not be a member to be considered a “Christian;” on the other hand, neither does membership suggest the ability to expect any kind of eternal perks. Membership in the church is about a relationship with Christ and his people, and a commitment to God’s kingdom.
All of which raises the questions: What is membership? Why bother?
What is Church Membership?
We could say a lot about the theology of membership or the doctrine of ecclesiology, but in the end, it seems the question of what membership is might best be answered by looking at the vows people take when they “join.” Membership in the church demands a fourfold commitment: (1) a rejection of evil, (2) a profession of faith in Jesus, (3) a commitment to worship and service, and (4) an acceptance of the church’s guidance while living out a communal commitment to unity, purity, and peace. (To read the exact wording, see the RCA’s “Order for Profession of Faith.”)
Interestingly, none of these four commitments are merely matters of the past. Each of them are promises that must be renewed on a regular – perhaps daily – basis. In other words, church membership is not something we “did;” it is, rather, something we keep doing. As members of Christ’s church (both locally and globally), we daily recommit ourselves to reject evil. We daily recommit ourselves to Jesus’ lordship; we daily recommit ourselves to worship and service in the church, and we daily recommit ourselves to a life of unity, purity, and peace in loving community with one another.
There are many reasons I believe church membership is a good thing. First and foremost, I believe it is both important and beneficial that we make these commitments publicly. Private commitments are wonderful, but our public commitments make greater demands on our integrity – when we publicly embrace the fourfold membership commitment, we give ourselves an extra incentive to remain faithful to them.
Secondly, our commitment to Christ and the church is reciprocated by a powerful promise offered in return: The church promises to “love, encourage, and support [us] by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service.”
In a wonderfully circular way, our commitments become the support and encouragement other people need to be faithful, and their commitments become the support and encouragement we need.
It’s worth noting: we all fail. Each of us grows lax in our own commitments at times, and the church, at times, fails to adequately love, encourage and support us. Alexander Pope’s words are truly appropriate here: to err is human, to forgive is divine. Yes, we all fail, but divine forgiveness is granted freely to each of us (and through each of us to one another) in order that those failures would become increasingly temporary and decreasingly frequent.
If you are already a member of Pultneyville Reformed Church, how faithfully are you living into your membership commitments? If you are not yet a member, please consider joining us – it may be exactly the support you need. In either case, if you have any questions, give me a call, or drop me an e-mail; I’d love to talk with you!
Grace and peace,