The church is not something that we go to;
It is something that we are.
As I wrote on Friday, most people would say that, on a conscious level at least, they realize that "the church" is not the same as "the church building." There is a song that we used to sing at summer camp -- "I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together." [(c) Avery & Marsh, 1972] Most people would understand this to mean, "the church is the people," and would agree.
And yet, as I also noted on Friday, every time we say, "I'm going to church" we are unconsciously reinforcing this misunderstanding -- that church is a place to which we go. Even if we're not actually talking about the building but, instead, the programs that're happening in that building, whenever we talking about "going to church" we reinforce the idea that church is something that we attend.
Yet if, as most people would agree, "the church" is "the people," then it's not something that they are doing and that we are attending. It's us. Together. In community. Church isn't someplace that we go; it's something that we are.
And it's important to note that it's something that we are. You cannot be a church in isolation. It takes community because, simply put, it is community. A very special kind of community. It's often called "the beloved community." South African Archbishop Desmuod Tutu once said that church should be, "an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world,” showing how the world should be. We are the church together.
And who is it, then, who makes up this church? Actual institutional congregations often spend a fair amount of time and energy trying to quantify who is, and who is not, a member. Sometimes this is for doctrinal reasons (they want to keep the heretics out); sometimes its for financial reasons (the denominational headquarters assesses annual dues on a per-person basis); and sometimes its for reasons of pride and self-identity (wanting to know if we're a "large church" or a "mid-sized church" or a "large mid-sized church."). There may be a committee or even a paid staff person to keep track of the numbers. There may be new member classes, or a workshop, or a special initiatory worship service. There's often some kind of "membership book" in which are enscribed the names of the members.
Yet even with all of this attention congregations still wrestle with questions about membership. Do we count the people who come to worship on (most) Sundays? How about those who come but don't pledge financial support? How about those who pledge financial support but don't come? How about people who serve on lots of committees? How about people who don't serve on any committees yet who seem to embody the spirit of the community in the way they live their daily lives?
In one of the congregations I served there was a bit of a kerfluffle at one of our annual meetings. The vote had just been taken on our next president, and it was unanimous -- this guy was deeply embedded in the life of the church, he'd done so much, everyone knew him and respected him, he'd been there for years. Yet it turned out that he wasn't a member. He'd never "signed the book" in all of those years of active involvement.
Now, from my perspective, he was much more a true "member" of the church than some of the folks who were on the membership roles yet who rarely (if ever) darkened the door of the building in any way, shape, or form. And it wasn't just that he came to church; it's that he was church. His engagement -- it's quality -- was what identified him, signature in the book or not.
So . . . would it be possible for us to stop worrying so much about numbers and "categories of membership" and start focusing on active engagement? The questions would become, then, instead of "who is a member?" -- who is actively involved in the ministries of our congregation, and who is being touched by them?
I would note, tieing this in to my last post, that it seems to me that the focus on "membership" (as we currently do it) stems from our focus on institutional conservation. To let go of that would be to open ourselves to risk. After all, without membership criteria anyone could show up and vote! (Not really too big a worry when you consider the small percentage of members who actually show up to participate in annual meetings!)
A deeper issue is raised when you put this conversation in juxtaposition with those who want to create higher levels of expectation for members . . . essentially making it more challenging to become "a member" so as to deepen the meaning and significance a person attaches to her or his membership. Yet if we define "member" as someone who is actively engaged in the ministries of the church -- or, perhaps even, being touched by them -- haven't we already done that?
And, too, there are those who say that we need to identify members so that we can take good care of them and keep track of them (especially as a congregation grows). Yet again, it seems to me, that this focus on "members" will mean that we're counting some people who hardly belong, really, and not counting (perhaps) many who are deeply involved. I suggest that we still keep track . . . of the actively involved. (And I do believe that those who are in a place in which they can only receive are also actively involved -- they're involved in receiving! That's why, above, I asked, "Who is involved in our ministries and who is being touched by them!"
I believe that if we begin to think this way we'll soon find that our congregations are actually much larger than we currently think they are. We'll be more attractive to the "post-modern" crowd who are wary of joining things, wary of institutions, and wary, specifically, of the church in part because they think the church is only interested in increasing its members!
I've noted elsewhere that Jesus did not ask people to join his church; he asked them to follow. An action. And the early Jesus movement was called, simply, The Way. Suggesting movement -- again, action. The predominating view of membership -- conscious or not -- is that it is something that one attains or achieves. It might well be time, again, for the church to remember that it's about engaging a Way, of being community together in the world, not just signing a book.
I look forward to the conversation that I hope this will engender.
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