Friday, May 17, 2013

The Messiness of Church Membership

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

When I came to CCCUCC, I committed to meet with every church member; there aren’t that many of us after all.  I wanted to hear people’s stories.  I realized that in my previous ministry settings I had done a lot of work with church members, but I had not spent enough time simply listening to them.  One of the benefits of starting over in a new church is the chance to try something new—here at CCCUCC one of my new things is being intentional about hearing your  stories.
            Once I began meeting with CCCUCC folks, however, I had some surprises.  Some of the people I had assumed were church members—a reasonable assumption since they attend worship faithfully, volunteer for church ministries and support the church financially—have never chosen to officially become members.  This is pretty interesting considering that these “unofficial” members are more faithful to the church than some who are officially on the roll  What should I make of these folks who look and act like members but who have never “joined” the church?
            In a denomination like ours that does not have strict rules of membership—each church is autonomous and makes its own decisions even as it exists in relationship with the rest of the denomination—it’s usually informative (if not always helpful) to check the church bylaws.  According to CCCUCC’s bylaws, which were rewritten in 2011, we accept as members “people who have heard and responded to Christ’s call” by “baptism and either confirmation or profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, reaffirmation of faith, or letter of transfer or certification from another Christian Church.”  Those words may seem self-explanatory, but I suspect we could talk for a long time without reaching total agreement on exactly what is “Christ’s call“ and  how does one “hear and respond” to it?  What is “faith?”  What does it mean to call Jesus Christ “Lord” and what exactly has he saved us from anyway?  What constitutes a “Christian Church?”  I point out the room for different interpretations not to be critical of the committee who put together this draft of the bylaws but rather to point out that any and every set of church bylaws leaves a lot of room for diversity and even disagreement when there is no higher ecclesiastical authority to declare what terms like these mean.  When we speak of things like “faith,” “Jesus Christ,” and “God” we struggle against the limitations of language.  (Christians have been fighting over these things since the beginning.)  In a denomination like ours and a congregation like ours—both of which cherish the freedom of the individual believer, we like leaving room for differing interpretations of such things, because we know none of us has a monopoly on what these loaded words mean.
            In the 2011 revision of our bylaws, the category of “Associate Membership” was added which in essence gives all the rights and responsibilities of membership to people who have never joined but who nonetheless participate in and support the ministry of the church.  The only requirements are a person must agree to be an associate member, the minister and Evangelism Committee must recommend them and the General Council must approve them.  None of these are very high hurdles to get over.  Basically, you get to be a member without having to become a member!  I guess the church can’t make it much easier than that—folks should get the idea that we really want them as a part of the church.
            Yet there are still folks who support the church financially, attend worship and volunteer for its ministry who have chosen neither to become members nor associate members.  When I’ve asked (gently and without judgment) why not, usually I’ve gotten one of two answers: 1. If I’m not a member then I don’t have to serve on a committee, and 2. I don’t believe all that stuff about God.  The first answer always strikes me as funny, because we don’t have a requirement that members serve on committees; there are plenty of members who refuse to do so for one reason or another.  It is the second answer that is more complicated.
            I’m always a little shocked when I’m told someone doesn’t want to become a church member because they don’t believe one thing or another.  I’m shocked, because this is the U.C.C. (nick-named Unitarians Considering Christ) and there are all kinds of UCC people that don’t believe in traditional Christian things and who do believe in all kinds of traditionally heretical things.  I know UCC laity and clergy who believe all kinds of far out things about God, Jesus and everything else.  Most of the time they ended up in the UCC, because they were considered heretics in whatever denomination they came from. 
            The UCC is a bit messy, because on the one hand it has the trappings of traditional Christianity, but on the other hand it allows freedom for all sorts of non-traditional beliefs about God.  In the official UCC Book of Worship, the section on Reception of New Members has a place for questioning new members about if they believe in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and if they profess “Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and so on, but nowhere are these terms defined.  Yes, there is probably a common understanding of these ideas, but if we press hard on any of them, we easily find there is room for a lot of different understandings of who God is, who Jesus is, who and what the Holy Spirit is and so on.  Furthermore, nowhere in any UCC documents does it say that a congregation must use this language from the Book of Worship or that in order to be a member a person must give certain answers in order to be a member.  In fact, it states quite clearly in a bunch of UCC documents that congregations are free to make up their own rituals of welcoming new members. 
            I believe the questions and answers of the UCC Book of Worship have been used at CCCUCC to welcome new members at various times in the past, and I suspect this has left the impression that people who become members must subscribe to these very traditional sounding statements of faith.  It may not appear like there is any wiggle room in such faith statements, but there is and always has been in the UCC. 
Since coming to CCCUCC, I have used the following questions and answers in the two times we have welcomed new members:

MINISTER:                ­­­­­­­­­­­__________, as it is your intention to join Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ, please read together your commitment to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

NEW MEMBERS:   I commit to follow the way of Jesus Christ and seek to the best of my ability to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbor as I love myself.

MINISTER:                Please read together your commitment to this community of faith.

NEW MEMBERS:   I promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people, sharing regularly in the worship of God and sharing in the work of this local church as it serves the community and the world.

It’s not perfect, but I believe it makes more explicit the freedom that we cherish in our church.  No, it doesn’t define who and what God and Jesus Christ is, but it stresses what seems most important to me: following the teachings of Jesus Christ, loving God and neighbor and committing to this particular community of faith.
            For many people, the lack of specific definition is a turn-off.  Many folks desire strict descriptions of God and doctrine that allow no room for interpretation; the UCC is not for them—neither is CCCUCC.  When I read the bylaws of our church and their description of members and associate members as well as when I experience the life of this church as it is lived among the people who take part in it, I believe it is the kind of community we are together that matters most rather than a common understanding of doctrine.
            When I meet with people and hear their stories, I always ask, “What brought you to CCCUCC and what has kept you coming back?”  The answers are almost uniformly, “I came because of the ___________ (music, minister, building, Open and Affirming, etc.), but I have stayed because of the people.”  It is the community of people that make this church who and what it is not a common set of doctrine.  Yes, it is messy sometimes when people hold different religious beliefs in a religious organization, but we believe those differences are a strength rather than a weakness.  Our differences of belief create accountability and challenge us to expand our limited understandings of God.  This is why I am comfortable having members of the church where I serve who range from traditional Christians to Unitarians to agnostics, because we are searching for answers together rather than as individuals.  We experience God in our life together rather than just in our statements of belief.  It’s messy, but it’s worth it.    

Grace and Peace,

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