General CBF

Membership = Commitment ?

I recently read an interesting book, Urban Christianity and Global Order by Andrew Davey. Davey points out that one of the implications of urbanism is the response of “believing without belonging” (p.91). People are willing to participate in social networks (such as the Church) but are unwilling to “put their name down” for membership. He implies that they are unwilling to make long-term commitments to one another.

This may well be the case. One aspect of our culture of individualism in the United States is the fact that the individual defines his or her own reality. Such individualism, leads us to hold two crucial beliefs. The first is the pursuit of personal happiness and independence rather than collective goals or interests, is our ultimate goal. The second is the belief that society exists for the benefit of individual people, who must not be constrained by government interventions or made subordinate to collective interests (Individualism:

Such beliefs have colored our theology and the way that we practice church. In North America, the church first functioned as a religious association. This allowed membership to be voluntary and individuals were able to choose whom they would associate. Salvation became a “personal” choice and confined to the private experience of the individual. We stressed a personal relationship with Jesus, and left the idea of being community in and through Christ at the church door. To share the burdens of our neighbors seemed a hassle rather than an opportunity for spiritual formation. Corporate accountably and mutual growth conjured ideas of financial investments rather than spiritual opportunity.

The relativism and pluralism of a post-modern worldview has grown from the modern emphasis of the individual. Stemming from the individualism of modernity, postmodern individuals value pluralism. This pluralism defined like cultural pluralism, “a condition in which minority groups participate fully in the dominant society, yet maintain their cultural differences”, takes issue with professionalism in the church (Cultural Pluralism: Post moderns look at such professionalism as a means to control people based on a universal truth, which directly challenges their strong value of relativism. A large majority of postmodern Christians or those that grew up in the church read the Bible as an invitation to participate with God on mission. Because of their emphasis on pluralism as defined above, they define participation as “role” and therefore place value on the individual and the gifts that enable them to fill needed roles in the body of Christ.

Given this perspective, what exactly is membership? Does membership start when we put our name down on a piece of paper? Does it add legitimacy to the act of being in community? Do we have to tell someone, “Ok, I think that I’ll join this community.” to be able to participate in community? Does that act mean that we suddenly belong? Perhaps to the postmodern mind the whole thing is funny.
My experience is that people want acceptance not based on the formal in/out context of membership or club, but based on who they are. The very idea of “putting your name down” implies institutionalization. Is the Church, i.e., the Body of Christ, really about institution or is it more organic. You want loyalty and commitment then be loyal, committed, be vulnerable, be real. Express the truth in love and accept the truth in love. Work toward a common goal or purpose founded in the idea that there is something bigger than just “institutions” and ourselves. Center such work on the principle of servant hood as epitomized by the “Word” of God who came to live among us and welcomed those that were not invited to the “club” to the table to feast on life.

What if commitment was less like membership and more like living life together?

Davey, Andrew. 2002. Urban Christianity and global order: theological resources for an urban future. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.

3 thoughts on “Membership = Commitment ?

  1. Great thoughts. I’ve noticed over the past five years or so that people are much slower to join a church. We have a number of people who have been visiting the church for years, even attending on Wednesday nights, but who seem to have no interest in joining.

    We’ve made some effort to redefine membership in our church. We require people to attend a new member’s class before they join, hoping to instill in our new members a sense of calling to minister. It hasn’t been easy, but hopefully over time it will move our concept of membership into better directions.

  2. Yeah Matt, I definitely agree with you. Church membership is sort of a strange thing in our generation’s worldview. I think a lot of the tension is due to the underlying financial burden of maintaining such elaborate and expensive buildings, equipment, and programs.

    For example, when I was learning about the sound equipment to run rehearsals in the peachtree room, there was a concern mentioned about non-members using the sound equipment which, I can understand, but still feels a little wrong. I think that, for the generation that built those structures, they are so proud of them and committed to them, that the issue of church membership can be, in large part, an issue of “are you in this monumental task with us?” Our generation tends to see this kind of appropriation of resources as irresponsible, and, as you said, would rather commit ourselves to the monumental task of God’s mission in the world. We crave community that isn’t as tied to specific financial and logistical restraints.

    The problem with that is that there are specific financial and logistical restraints and we would prefer to just ignore them. So, to use myself as an example, I consider myself a part of the Wieuca community, I consider it my church family, we tithe there, but Alexis and I aren’t members simply because we haven’ gotten around to looking into the process of officially joining. On the one hand, why should I bother dealing with some arcane process of joining just so I can be “official,” but on the other hand, isn’t it a little stupid for me not to since it does matter to some people in my faith community?

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