Thursday, November 14, 2013

Membership Has It's Privileges.. Doesn't It?

Our pastor posted this as the theme for an adult forum the other week. It was to get people in our church thinking about what it means to be a member of the church. Needless to say it got me thinking and wandering around my thoughts and feelings about this probably controversial topic.

I didn't get to the forum that Sunday so what I am about to say is entirely of my insight- or lack thereof. It is what has been running through my brain since then.

It was a good starting place. We assume that when we are members of an organization or group that there is some benefit we can get for it. If I join a local theater I get the privilege of cheaper tickets or perhaps backstage tours. If I join the library (get a library card) I can borrow books. To join may or may not cost money, but there is definitely an advantage. That's why we join.

Hence the gist of the question on church membership. What ARE the advantages of joining the church.

Reaction #1: None. I get nothing for it that I couldn't get just by attending the church. Worship is free and open in most churches. Plenty of non-members attend most of the mega-churches. Sure, I might not be able to take communion in some churches, but is that enough reason to join?

Reaction #2: Control of some type. For example, I get to vote for church officers and perhaps have a say in the way the church is run.

Reaction #3: (According to some people)- Salvation. That is not my opinion. I don't believe that being a church member has anything to do with our eternal life in heaven or wherever. I have known plenty of people who do believe that. I have met more than my share of individuals who kept their names on church rolls as an eternal life insurance policy- and would admit to that publicly anytime they were called and asked if they wanted to remain on the church rolls having not attended in years- or even decades.

Reaction #4: Privilege? Wait. Hold on. Privilege. Privilege? What does that mean?

Privilege- honor, treat, pleasure, joy, freedom, license, opportunity, restricted right or benefit, advantage, special treatment.
That's where the trouble comes in, I think. When we believe that membership is about what we get, the advantages, special rights or treatment. I am a member, you owe me this or I deserve that kind of treatment. Hence one of the great complaints about the modern 20th Century Church (where most of us are still living?!) is that it has become more like a country club or just passive entertainment.

Here is where I can begin to get in trouble, hot water, and start all kind of arguments. Perhaps I am too much a follower of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer theological school. There is no greater exposition on the heart of church "membership" than his classic The Cost of Discipleship. From Wikipedia:
Bonhoeffer argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more "secularised", accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. In this way, "the world was Christianised, and grace became its common property." But the hazard of this was that the gospel was cheapened, and obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, so that in the end, grace could literally be sold for monetary gain.
"Hold on," some might say. "When did we get into discipleship? We're talking about membership in an institution, an organization, that functions within the society."

All of this really muddies the waters, doesn't it? It depends on which side of the theological discussion you start- with an organization in the society or with following Jesus. Is the church to be a foundational institution in our society as some might argue, or is it something different, something unique, something spiritual?

How is the church different from other organizations in society?

I realize that we have strayed a little from the original question.  But the relevance of the original question depends entirely, completely, totally on where and how we define the church. I would argue as a starting point for discussion that there are no benefits gained from being a church member, unless you are interested in
having a say in the running of the church
aligning yourself publicly with a religious/spiritual position
want the church to continue to be alive in your community.

Beyond that, as a starting point, the membership in the church is a human-devised institution, and a secular one at that.

To be a member of the church in a spiritual sense is anything but that. The language of the New Testament took a Greek word that was used to indicate a part of the human body and applied it to those who joined with Christ. It is a mystical joining, something beyond institution, something beyond privilege. No part of the human body can exist without the body. No part of the human body is any more- or less important, each having it's own place.

Somewhere along the line, though, the word member has come to mean a special relationship, a privilege. Membership has its privilege, right?

Except the only privilege my left arm has for being a member of my body is two-fold
1) to live and
2) to do it's job of being my left arm.

How did we get to this? Aren't we playing word games and a philosophical/theological scrabble?

No, I don't think so. I think we are at the foundation of the problems of the modern church.

Membership in The Church brings along with it no privilege, no special advantage, no promise of anything other than the life-giving body and blood of our Lord, spiritually, mystically flowing through us. To serve Christ is not to clean floors, shovel snow, or provide for the survival of a human institution. (Those may be important in their own ways, but they are not, I believe, in the service of God. More at some other time on that!) That's about the church, not The Church.

The two are not the same; they are no co-equal in spite of what theological discussions have tried to tell us. They may (MAY) overlap at times when the church lives out the call of The Church, but they are not the same. One is a human institution based in and through society; the other is a spiritual union of the followers of Jesus, those who would be humble enough to be willing to call themselves Christian- Christ-followers.

What privilege do I get by being a member of the church? Put most simply, I get the privilege of giving myself to the benefit of others. It is the benefit of sacrifice and discipleship, of being part of The Word alive in the world.

That is downright scary!

No wonder we have made it into a country club.

With that in mind I call you attention to the post right below this. It is a story I have posted before and will post again. It is one of only two non-Biblical stories that I have preached more than once at the same church. It is the Parable of the Lifesaving Station. Read it and you will understand my theology in a nutshell.

Sure, there are nuances and digressions we could take with this discussion, but in keeping it simple, I don't think we could get must more basic than that.

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