Below you’ll find my article for our December church newsletter (the Courant). For those of you unfamiliar with the Reformed Church, let me explain: we have 3 categories of members (1) Confessing (Active) Members, (2) Baptized Members, and (3) Inactive Members. (We also have “adherents” – but they’re not technically “members” even though, in many churches, many of the adherents are more “active” than the official “members!”)
In September I wrote about what it means to be an active (confessing) member. This month I wrote about what it means to be “inactive.”
Inactive: What is it?!
A few months ago I wrote about what it means to be a “member” of the church. In short, I suggested that it means living into the vows we take when we make profession of faith. Specifically the four-fold commitment to: (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. Membership is a fairly simple concept – we promised to do something and we do it. The reality is, however, that there are times when we don’t do what we said we would. In the Reformed Church we call that being “inactive.”
“Inactive” is a word that in almost any other context is a completely neutral concept. An inactive nurse is simply a nurse who isn’t practicing. An inactive member of a club is someone who doesn’t participate in the activities of that club. Most organizations have an “inactive” status and, although they’d prefer people were active, they understand that sometimes the demands of life don’t allow for full participation. To be “inactive” does not make someone “bad” or a “failure.” It is simply an honest categorization of those who are not, for whatever reason, currently active.
As I wrote in September, we need to be clear: membership in the church is different from membership in other organizations. Church membership is a public commitment to live in community with God’s people and participate in the life and ministry of a local congregation. Fellowship and ministry are not “extra curricular” aspects of Christianity; they are fundamental to the faith. Which is why, “inactive” in the church is often seen as a negative or judgmental designation. Indeed, there are rare, but appropriate, times when the Elders of a congregation are called to make someone inactive as a matter of discipline.
Generally speaking, though, the designation of “inactive,” like in other organizations, is nothing more than an honest categorization of those who are not, for whatever reason, currently active. We read about this in the Book of Church Order which requires the board of Elders to “place on the inactive list the name of any confessing member whose relationship with the church has ceased for one year or who for one year has not made faithful use of the means of grace” (BCO 1.I.5.2d). In other words, the Elders are expected to look at the membership list every year and designate those who are “inactive.” The hope is, of course, that people will renew their active connection with the church. As a matter of fact, the BCO continues, in the same paragraph, by saying that the Elders “shall seek diligently… to recover that member.”
Unfortunately, there is no convenient way to deal with the deep tension between the realization that a number of our members are not “active” (whom BCO requires the Elders to make inactive) and the concern that doing so will be seen as judgmental (which is not intended!) Your Elders are doing their best to find a way to honor the requirements of our order while, at the same time, doing so in a way that is wise, gracious and non-judgmental.
As always, if you would like to discuss this with me further, please let me know. My office hours remain the same and I am available by phone and e-mail.
Grace and peace,