Friday, November 26, 2010

Rethinking Membership

As we re-examine what it means to be the Church in a post-modern, post-Christendom context, one important tradition thatGreat Plains Yearly Meeting at Central City, 2008 bears a fresh look is that of church membership. Membership has changed a lot over the centuries. In the early Church, membership was a result of a long process of initiation and sacrifice. Membership meant real risk - socially and economically - and even carried the possibility of public torture and death.

During the late Roman Empire and Middle Ages in Europe, membership in the Church was generally automatic: Infants were initiated into membership in the Church, and adult conversion was a rare occurrence. With the whole of western society being based in a Roman understanding of Christianity, to be a European was to be Christian.

Things changed markedly with the Protestant Reformation in the fourteenth century. Suddenly, there were a variety of competing groups, all claiming to be the true Church. To add to this uproar, new sects such as the Anabaptists (and, later, Quakers) insisted that membership in the Church could not be conferred at infancy; instead, they claimed, each person must make a personal decision for Christ as an adult. In many places, particularly in areas strongly influenced by Arminian thought, membership in the Christian Church was no longer only a question of birth or culture; instead, it had become a personal choice.

In the centuries since the Reformation, western society has becoming increasingly focused on the rights of the individual asFriends at Quaker Camp, 2007 opposed to the rights of the community, and human happiness has come to be understood largely in terms of individual prosperity and freedom. As materialism has grown ever more pervasive in the West, the way we understand membership in the Church has become correspondingly consumerist. It is common for people today to speak of "church-shopping," and membership in a congregation is often thought of primarily in terms of what benefits - material, social and spiritual - the individual receives from the congregation. In our present culture, the Church is at grave risk of becoming yet another commodity to be hawked in the consumer-driven marketplace.

Many congregations and denominations have begun to think in these ways explicitly, speaking openly about "market share" and mounting business-style advertising campaigns. Faith in Jesus Christ becomes something that we need to "sell" to others, and the Church becomes a product to be marketed. We have been so deeply influenced by our society's materialistic individualism that we often treat Jesus as no different from Coca-Cola or the latest fad diet. We sell the Body of Christ.

Clearly, in this environment, we need to rethink membership and what it means for us as missional Quaker communities today. HowOhio Yearly Meeting, 2009 do we respond to the consumer-driven model that has infected even the idea of church membership? How do we reclaim the tradition of membership in the Church as being part of the Body of Christ, part of a radical community of those who are committed to serving God and neighbor together? Instead of continuing down the road of deadening self-gratification, how do we once again place mission at the heart of our life as the Church?

Earlier this week, I read Scott Wells' post, "Renewable Church Membership?," and I was reminded of the opportunity we have to think radically about what it means to belong to a congregation. The way have done membership in recent years is not set in stone, and there is no reason we cannot do things differently, as the Lord leads us in our present context. I was particularly impressed with Scott's willingness to look at how membership might be considered as an ongoing, mutual commitment between the congregation and the individual. So often today, membership in our churches can become almost meaningless. I know of many Meetings where the majority of the "membership" has not attended meeting for worship in years. The older the Meeting, the more this can become a problem, as children and grand-children start piling up as paper members but never make a real commitment to the congregation.

I believe that Scott's proposal of renewable membership might be worth considering as we seek to establish new missional QuakerYoung Quakers in Greensboro, North Carolina Meetings that can be a transformational presence in their local contexts. I know that the Church of the Saviour - a venerable example of the old-school missional Church - has long emphasized the commitment that membership entails, both to Christ and to the other members of the Church. The Church of the Saviour required membership to be renewed each year, and they linked membership to specific commitments of time, energy and financial resources to the community and to mission.

How might we re-evaluate how membership functions in our Meetings? How is God calling us to change our ways of thinking about membership in order to be faithful to Christ's mission in our present context? Are we ready to shake things up?


Comrade Kevin said...

Membership is often used a kind of currency to determine what viewpoints are more highly valued than others, particularly regarding church/meeting decisions.

I can't count the number of times where people have cited the number of years they've been members to almost demand to be taken seriously.

But as for the outside world, there are many spiritual seekers. It's difficult to know who are shopping as though for the perfect consumer good or car, and who are genuinely visiting to find a spiritual home.

The challenges even in my own meeting are often knowing how to differentiate between members who are friendly and helpful, and those whose own private agendas and personal issues do not make it easy to associate with on a regular basis. It is important that we search for the Light within all, but this is a discipline and one not always easily undertaken.

Bill Samuel said...

It's a difficult area. Connected to a faith community are usually people with various levels of commitment. It is good both to have a means of clear commitment, and to respect where people are at.

In my experience, Friends tend to be pretty good at not pressuring people prematurely into membership, but the actual meaning of membership often becomes unclear.

In theory, often Friends meetings/churches have a body which should be keeping in touch with all members, which means it should have a fairly clear idea of which members may no longer be committed to the meeting/church. In practice, that seldom happens.

The Church of the Savior modality (& I don't know if all the churches in that network still follow it carefully) has a clear logic, but could be seen as too rigid.

My own church reserves the right to ask for renewal of membership, but doesn't specify a period. Earlier this year, the first time in my 5 years of membership, all current members were asked whether they wanted to recommit to membership, drop their membership, or were unsure. I'm not sure how the unsure ones were handled. At any rate, we are trying to take an approach somewhat in between life membership and annual renewal.

Gil said...

Membership is one of the ways we "keep score." Unless we put a new metric in place, we will keep returning to stagnant ideas of membership. We have to come up with a new metric that focuses on development of relationship rather than members of the club. Something like "How many people are in a mentoring relationship? Either as a mentor or mentoree."

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you want to have it both ways. Either we have a voluntaristic system where adults do "church shopping" or we have people raised in the faith--something that seems to happen for all churches that last for more than one generation. We tend to raise our children with our own values.

I can see your desire for membership to actually require commitment and responsibility. It's not exactly desirable that we go back to being tortured or executed for our beliefs, though I hope we hold them strongly enough for that.

forrest said...

As a strictly practical matter, the people you can expect to see regularly at your church are those who are "getting something out of it." It would be absurd to expect otherwise, ridiculous to blame anyone for making such a commonsense requirement of any institution making demands on his time.

So the real crunch comes down to: "What kind of something can people expect from joining a church?" "Is it personal/feel-good on a superficial level, or does it feed people on a deeper level?" "What kind of results, process, activity have people learned to value?" You might have to help people with really limited needs before they're prepared to see the point of anything more.

If each person in your congregation was already St. Francis, they wouldn't need to come to church as much as the sort of people you probably have.

God gathers a certain group of people... and it might never be clear, with every such group, what on Earth God had in mind.

Does a congregation exist to serve, or to be served? Well, which are they capable of? That's going to vary from group to group, from member to member, and laying down rules for How It Oughtst To Be doesn't seem likely to help much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the topic. How about asking those who are members or active attenders what membership means to them?

From that we can begin to have a conversation

Christine Greenland said...

Thanks, Micah! There was some discussion of renewal of membership in a meeting of which I was a member (or at least tolerated) for nearly 20 years. I was among those who "wasn't sure", and had it come to having committees of clearness about intention, I would have given reasons why I wasn't sure.

To the surprise of many Friends, I did not enroll my son as a member... (my Dunker heritage stuck)... since I felt he needed to come into mature faith before making a commitment. He is serious about integrity, for which I am grateful. We need to care about and for each other in community. I like the idea of mentoring... We'd be stronger communities if we all did more of that.

I finally took the step of sojourning at a meeting, then transferring membership to a community in which I seem to be spiritually challenged, as well as embraced. Still among Friends, but that wasn't a foregone conclusion when I was contemplating the move.

Timothy Travis said...

I don't know as much as a lot of people do about this, but my impression is that membership was not a characteristic of the Quaker movement until issues arose around charity and pressure from the Protestant world.

Once it became apparent that what looked like the "end times" was actually "the mean time," and the march back to Protestant mores was under way, it became necessary to know, both internally and externally, who was really a Quaker, and who was not.

I understood that membership came about as

1. a means of determining who was a part of the community and therefore entitled to its common resources, not only at home but also when traveling.

2. a way to communicate to those beyond the hedge what was "Quaker" and what was not (e.g. in the case of Friend Nayler and others who brought down heat from the Protestant establishment).

I have heard people talk about birth right membership (often--although certainly not always--birth right members) in a way that sounds like that is an honorific title of nobility.

All membership means to me is that, when nominating committee asked me to consider whether I might have a leading to be clerk of the meeting, they told me that to be clerk one had to be a member of the meeting. It's the only circumstance in which I can recall it mattered, one way or the other.

Micah Bales said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Micah Bales said...

@Kevin You're right that membership definitely plays into whose opinions are taken seriously in the Meeting's decision-making process. Traditionally, only members were allowed to participate in the meeting for business and committees. Among Conservative Friends (and perhaps others), this is still the case. The idea behind this is that one first needs to make a clear commitment to the Meeting before one can be entrusted with discerning God's will for that Meeting.

I agree, though, that being a member (or not) does not necessarily make you a more spiritually sensitive or kinder person. I hope that we can avoid seeing membership as a matter of status, and rather see it as a question of relationship and commitment.

@Bill This whole membership question is indeed tricky, and I know I'm opening up a big can of worms by discussing it!

It's great that your church is able to ask people for renewal of membership on a regular basis. It's been my observation, though, that most Meetings don't have the stomach for regular reviews of the membership. I wonder if it might not be better for such reviews to be automatic; this might put less of a burden on the Meeting to decide when memberships should be reviewed. Perhaps having everyone's membership up for review each year makes the matter less personal (and less offensive). In this way, membership becomes about explicit commitment to the community, not about an abstract idea of belonging, divorced from human interaction.

@Gil I think you're right about the "score-keeping" nature of membership in our Meetings today. I like your idea of envisioning a "new metric" for membership. What kind of things can we measure instead of simply "people in the club"? It seems that the Church of the Saviour tends to measure by the number of people who are part of mission groups - and every member is required to be a part of a mission group, I believe.

@Jane I think I may have been unclear: I never meant to suggest that people should not explore new churches and find one where God is calling them. What I object to (and labeled "church shopping") is the chronic consumption of church services without ever really committing to a particular congregation.

I agree that it would be good to avoid the horrible persecution that so many of our spiritual ancestors had to bear. I do hope, however, that the Church today might embrace a lifestyle of self-sacrificial love, modeled after Jesus.

@Forrest The Church exists to serve the world and to share the Gospel - both in word and in deed - with everyone who is ready to hear it. Our focus must be on serving others, not ourselves. I believe that nurture within the Meeting should always be focused on equipping members to become better Christians and more whole human beings, so that we can reach out to the wider world and be instruments of God's love and justice.

@Anonymous I thought we were having a conversation! :) If you'd like to talk about what membership means to you, we're all ears.

@Christine Good for you for rejecting a Quaker version of infant baptism! I agree with you that membership should be for those who have made a personal decision to follow Jesus in the context and tradition of that particular community. I always thought that "dedication ceremonies" for infants was a good alternative - it allows us to acknowledge our love for families and children, but it does not suggest that babies can make a personal decision for Christ.

@Timothy Your historical observations seem right to me. I am sad that membership in some Meetings is little more than a formality. I hope that we can find ways to revitalize the meaning of membership in our present-day context.

Steven Davison said...

I think meeting membership is one of the key issues facing Friends today. Ultimately, almost everything else we love and don't love about our meeting comes down to our membership process—how we attract people and keep people and who we bring into the body and why. And, also, how 'covenantal' a relationship we nurture between members and attenders and the meeting. By this I mean, how much are we willing to engage each other in mutual responsibility for maturing in the Life? How much discipline do we expect from discipleship?

The Church of the Savior is very robust in this area. Friends tend to be very weak. My own story is a good case study. I told my clearness committee that I was hostile to Christianity and the Bible and, sure enough, I soon began hassling people about their vocal ministry and helped block the teaching of the Bible in first day school. My meeting got lucky. I am now something of a biblical theologian and, though I don't call myself a Christian, I recognize that I am a guest in the house that Christ built and try to behave as such.

I feel my meeting should have said: Steve, we want you as a member, but we're going to ask you to labor with us about your prejudices and take responsibility for your behavior among us. Are you willing to meet with us some more until we understand where you're coming from and you understand who you're joining? And to accept our gentle reminder if you bring trouble to our community? I would like to think that just hearing those words would have snapped me into shape. But at least, the meeting would have been in a position to protect its worship and fellowship.

We all come to a religion for something, for support, comfort, the renewal that meeting for worship offers. However, some of us come for transformation. We come for help in passing through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. Quaker meetings are not too bad at providing the comfort and freedom we all cherish. We are increasingly poor at helping those who want a crucible, who want to separate the dross in their spiritual lives from the true ore.

Do we try to identify the spiritual temperaments of those who seek membership with our clearness processes? Do we invite new members into a covenant that promises—and delivers—support in spiritual growth, healing and even correction on the Way? Can we meet the range of needs we encounter? Do we follow up membership by actively trying to identify the spiritual gifts our new members bring to us and help to nurture these gifts into maturity?

This kind of commitment on the part of the meeting (and also any kind of process for renewing membership, such as we've discussed in this thread) takes energy, time and people—especially, Friends endowed with the unique gifts needed to serve as elders. Many meetings are short of all three.

Merry said...

@ Micah, thank you for posting such a thought provoking topic. As one who has avoided faith communities for the past decade or so I find I am more at peace to learn how others believe and practice their faith. I've been led to explore Quakerism and am looking for a nearby Meeting to see in person what it is like.

@ Forrest, excellent points, specifically, I can get my "feel-good" feelings when I go before God quietly. I have no need to say anything other than simply, "look to my heart." I trust that God knows my concerns and will address whatever He thinks best. If I were to want to be part of a faith community it would be towards a deeper understanding. Just as I exist to serve I would want any community I was part of to have the same goal.
@ Steven Davison, Thank you so very much for your openness to sharing what you needed to learn to become a better member of your community. Although I am not hostile to the bible or Christianity both have left indelible marks on me. I have reached the point where I accept that although the teachings may be inspired by God they are conveyed by infallible humans. Your comments will help me remember that I will be a guest among believers. Thank you.