By John Chandler
While visiting friends last spring, Mary and I were invited to worship at a Presbyterian church. Our friends were active and enthusiastic members, and their invitation reminded me of an old truth — that far and away the most important vehicle for having people visit your church is a personal invitation from a friend or family member. Nothing else comes close.
The church was lovely, lively, large and full, the sermon thoughtful and concise. After worship, people near us made us feel quite welcome. And, as it was a youth and graduation Sunday, two dozen teenagers stood on the platform for recognition, several for baptism.
What struck me was how this congregation tied baptism to church membership. Most of the language describing the significance of this act was not about the transformation and discipleship of the candidates. Instead, the conversation was about their new responsibilities as members of that church. They were now expected to show up more often than not, serve on committees, give some money and volunteer for things the church was doing.
I disagree with none of these things, and incarnational life in the community of Jesus surely includes very ordinary things. If Brother Lawrence can find Jesus in the washing of pots and pans, surely we can do the same by teaching third grade Sunday school or bringing a covered dish to the potluck.
But, probably because it was a tribe other than my own, I was struck by the realization that membership vows in this church were substantially no different than the requirements of, say, a local Rotary Club. Perhaps less stringent, even.
“Membership” as a moniker for how we belong to Christian community is going away. Of course, we should have seen this coming, in the swelling numbers of people who participate in the life of our churches without “joining.” But rather than lamenting this, it may be cause for hope. After all, membership is fundamentally a category of consumerism; ask American Express, where “membership has its privileges.” And if being a disciple is the opposite of being a consumer, then surely we can do better than using a consumer category to describe our community, can’t we?
In our church, All Souls Charlottesville, we who belong do so by taking on a personal and communal “rule of life.” Other churches are experimenting with shades and grades of belonging. It is uncertain and messy territory. But I, for one, am excited to see what the post-membership church of North America might look like.