The Dark Side of Church Membership

I have an uneasy feeling about church membership. My experience with it thus far has left me feeling unsettled and frustrated. If it can be done well, I’d sincerely like to hear about how. In the mean time, I have my concerns.
Membership was sold to my congregation as means by which the leadership could more effectively care for their people. By knowing who was their people and who was not, they could more effectively focus their time, prayers and other resources.
Sensible. Logical. Efficient. Business-like.
Clinical.
This is how a community mental health clinician with a caseload of 80-100 maintains their sanity. They have clear delineations between who is their client and who is not. 30 days no contact? Close the account! Don’t respond to two or more outreach attempts? Close the account! Your insurance coverage expired? Close the account! Your year of funded sessions is up? Close the account! You chart is out of compliance? Close the account! 6 months go by, we don’t hear from you, your phone number is disconnected? Close the account!
In clinical work, we do this all the time. We do it for liability reasons, for case load management, for avoiding stretching ourselves too thin. We do this because, although we’re in a people-helping profession, we’re also a business. That’s how we operate.
I feel alarmed when the church begins to operate like a business.
And this is how I’ve seen membership played out.
You stopped coming to church? We’ll vote you out! You stopped attending because you had an irresolvable conflict? We’ll vote you out! You stopped coming because you stopped believing something we still believe? We’ll vote you out! You stopped coming and stopped responding to our outreach calls? We’ll vote you out!
And again, from a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Pastors, Elders and Deacons have limited resources and should use them wisely, even efficiently.
i couldnt resist    So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the church is not a business!!!
It’s a Body!
And church people are not collateral to be allocated, though certainly they can come collateral damage!
They’re people! Full lives, hopes and dreams, pains, struggles, doubts and fears.
Oh, wait, wait, wait. There’s another function of membership. Church membership comes with doctrinal statements, really specific, nuanced worldview based on a particular traditional interpretation of the Bible. To become a member, one must subscribe to the particular theological nuance of the community.
In this way, membership and its related doctrinal statements become a structure point, a way of demonstrating where this tradition ends and another begins. It’s a way of creating theological borders so as to maintain an identity.
Borders to be policed. An identity to be vigorously defended.
When I encounter individuals who are defensive about their personal boundaries and identities(as opposed to being firmly flexibly comfortable with themselves) usually it’s because the individual has deep rooted insecurities about who they are at their core.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that I don’t believe the church was meant to be a fortress on a mountain, locked and guarded, keeping as many people out as possible.
I believe the church is meant to be a city on a hill, well lit, visible, accessible, and welcoming.DSCN3942
We absolutely need our theological distinctives, but I think, as a global community, we really need to re-evaluate our attitude about how we go about declaring what those distinctive are.
More to the point, we must re-evaluate how those distinctive are impacting our relationships.
Are the particular nuanced beliefs we hold creating a community space that welcomes? That includes?
Fine, not everyone will believe the same as us. But are we creating a community space where questions are okay? Where people can wrestle through questions of deep core beliefs and still be welcomed and included?
Or do we jumped at the first chance we can to exclude and dis-member a theologically variant individual from our midst?
From what I’ve seen, when membership is in play, we dismiss people too easily, write them of too quickly. We get threatened by their questions, bothered by their differences, impatient with their behaviors. We don’t pursue people till the bitter end.
Like the Lost Coin. The 100th sheep. The Prodigal Son. Like the Pearl of Great Price.
Jesus tells these parables about people going to extraordinary effort to reclaim or obtain something small and precious. He says that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Extravagant efforts to pursue, to reclaim, to include, to welcome.
I don’t see that official church membership is accomplishing these goals.
Would we ever even consider repenting to the people we have alienated?
Are we even open to the idea that maybe we, not the Bible and not Christ, are the reason they have left?

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One thought on “The Dark Side of Church Membership

  1. Some real wisdom in what you shared here. Jesus is so for the 1 out of the 99 that is going astray. If membership serves any purpose it has got to be for others service and not anyone’s convience and ease. For Jesus’ sake not for ourselves. Well written and said. Thanks for sharing.

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