Easy Come, Easy Go

A little while ago, I lamented the notion of “high threshold membership” as possibly just an appeal to brand loyalty. What is the alternative? If the threshold for membership is set really low, it could be perceived as being as easy to leave as it was to come. My thought is that if you make it really easy for a person to join the message that is unintentionally communicated is that membership is not highly prized and it is a fairly disposable thing. Literally, “easy come, easy go.” This is typically the model of membership in church-growth oriented churches. While it is desirable for the front doors to be wide open to allow people in, they are also wide open to allow people out.This isn’t to say that church-growth oriented churches don’t care or don’t notice when people leave, the point I’m trying to make is what message is unintentionally communicated by this approach.

The problem is that both of the approaches I’ve listedI don’t pretend to exhaust the possible approaches to membership here, I’m just hitting on two popular ones. are based on the wrong models. In the olden days, there was one or two churches in a town or village. You didn’t have a choice to go church shopping because transportation was not rapid or easy. You went to the church you lived close to. Membership was a serious thing then for a few reasons. First, the sense of community that existed back then meant that most people wanted to belong and part of that “belonging” meant the local congregation. Second, membership was important because it could be given and denied. While we’re used to abuse of this kind of control, I don’t believe it was as prevalent back than as it is now. The reason was because everyone from the pastor down took it quite seriously. When a person evidenced salvation, they were admitted to membership. When they sinned unrepentantly, they were excommunicated. These things meant something in a small community. The option didn’t exist to walk down the street to Church Y and press on.

Both of these things would have been true not just in the West after the Reformation, but also in the early church as being out meant that you were cut off from the entire Christian community. During the Middle Ages in the West, things got muddied but if you were excommunicated from the Roman church you were pretty much cut off.The confusion was over what you could get excommunicated for. Sin was a pretty minor offense but if you dissed the King, Bishop or Pope, or failed to pay your taxes, you were in trouble.

‘Membership’ more than a name on a roll and it is more than brand loyalty. It is commitment and relationship. Membership exists because of our unity in Christ. Playing games with ‘membership’ is not the answer.

So what does it all look like now? In our self-actualizing, consumer-oriented, market driven culture, how does church membership work? Are our only options porous membership, high-threshold membership, or no membership? Consumerism is the water in our fishbowl. It is the atmosphere we swim in and we’d be foolish to think it didn’t affect us. It certainly affects our views of membership. The PDF I cited in my last post on this subject correctly noted that “People ‘hold membership’ in stores like Blockbuster or Sam’s Club. I got my Wegman’s Shoppers Club card by putting my name and address on a form. The discounts keep me coming back. We carry this way of belonging into the church.”

So if the discounts the author receives from the Wegman’s cardWegman’s is a grocery store chain in NY, PA, MD, NJ, DE and VA. I looked it up. keep ’em coming back, what keeps a person coming back to church? A membership card? Deep discounts on salvation? No, I think on this issue my thinking is most starkly formed by something I heard Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan say during a talk on the church’s vision. Tim said something like “Don’t come to this church because you like the preaching. Come to this church because you share the vision.” I think Tim is spot on here.

The way America works is consumerism. Emergent churches want to buck that trend. Fine. I have my reservations in regards to Capitalism and I think it is an unhealthy attitude in the church of Christ. But as I’ve said, it is the water in our fishbowl, what are you going to do?

Well, what I think you can do about it is not evaporate membership or make some artificial high level to attain it. Teaching about commitment and unity is important. People should commit to a body and stick by that commitment. Americans are particularly bad at sticking to commitments for very long. We need to have our thinking on this reshaped by the Scriptures. I fear that the other methods and models are still bound by consumerism.

The other part of the answer is relationships. People will stay together because they are bound together, bound to each other. Because they share the love of Christ together. In this way, membership should be easy to initiate. A person showing up at church with an interest in what is going on should be welcomed by the people. Hospitality may be listed as a spiritual gift, but it is also a command to all Christians (Rom 12:13, Heb 13:2. & 1Pt 4:9). I fear that we can use the notion of it as a spiritual gift in order to neglect it.

‘Membership’ more than a name on a roll and it is more than brand loyalty. It is commitment and relationship. Adding a name to an official list is not a bad thing nor is setting some standards, but in the end, membership exists because of our unity in Christ. Playing games with ‘membership’ is not the answer.

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One Comment

  • I think this is a really big issue which affects churches all over, not just in the States. Personally from the NT I would envisage a low threshold and really high expectations.

    After all, a baby is born into a family – and then grows to realise just what they (albeit unconsciously!) got themselves into. They also grow in their ability to fulfil family convenant responsibilities.

    A membership covenant is a good thing because it helps people to grow to understand more fully what they have gotten themselves into by being born again.

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