It may be time to replace church membership (I am Christian) with church covenant (I commit to go deeper).
The very notion that you can be a member of the church is at best meaningless and at worst a direct contradiction to the heart of the gospel message. To the former possibility, church members are often no more likely to do or be anything different than the rest of the world. Church’s rarely ask for any specific commitment of their members, and the only way off the membership logs tends to be through death or years of hard work by the church to purge old records. Membership often means nothing in particular about a person, their actions, or their relationships. To the latter, membership sounds reminiscent of and practically plays out like an exclusive club. Members receive special benefits or discounts whereas obedience to Christ often means sacrificing privilege for the sake of the outsider. Membership implies that we now have what we needed, whereas following Christ entails receiving daily bread along the journey.
The membership wall becomes a sometimes subtle, but all too real wall that we build up between insider and outsider. The gospel is focused throughout on tearing down the walls we build and finding God at work throughout all creation, especially in unhindered relationship with the least, last, and lost. Membership mentality goes so far as to imply ‘I am a Christian,’ which places the emphasis on me and what I’ve done. The gospel always starts with God and what God has done. Our lives are a response to what God has done and our hope is to say that we are following after Christ. To be is something static that can happen with or without God or neighbor. To follow is to realize we are always behind someone else’s lead, we are always changed along the way, and we are always surrounded by neighbors who are on the same journey.
The church does not exist to serve its members – it exists to fulfill the mission of God.
A better representation of what it means to ‘join’ a church is to become a covenant partner. Joining does not bring about a change in status or worth or depth of relationship with God, but it does enter us into a particular kind of covenant relationship in which our commitment provides a pathway to growth in relationship and discipleship with God and neighbor. Our commitment signals our intention to share in the mission of God as discerned and specified within a local congregation. It is a signal that I have chosen to follow in a particular way for a particular time.
A covenant partnership might be accomplished within the Methodist system by requiring a commitment to be made once a year by everyone wishing to be a partner. At stewardship time, cards would be passed out and set up a minimum expectation for each partner. Expectations should be kept at a minimum, but with enough shape to ensure that all partners are committed to the full mission of the church. Steps for deeper commitment could be given to allow for where people are on their journey.
If anyone does not sign up, their name can be read at that year’s charge conference. If they still haven’t signed the commitment by the next year, their name would be read a second time and removed from the ‘membership’ roll. To be taken off the roll is to have the burden of responsibility lifted from your shoulders and to instead be named as the one for whom the mission of the church exists. If membership is about privilege, it makes sense why someone would be upset to be taken off. If membership is about covenant responsibility, the easier path is be taken off the roll and simply get the free grace of God without the covenantal obligations to actually do anything. The open table is one simple UM practice that makes this distinction concrete – it is not membership that gets you an invite to the table, only the grace of God. To serve at the table may require training and commitment, but to receive at the table requires only the grace of God.
Could it actually happen? Would it actually matter in the life of a church? I have no idea. But the cultural meaning and emphasis on church membership has already shifted dramatically. This seems like a pretty good time to try something new.