Another challenge of setting the church's care by the standard of who is a 'member' or not is what happens when someone leaves the fellowship. We are living in an era of church hopping and church shopping, and that means that a number of persons are coming in our doors, staying awhile, and then leaving.
If we define our services by who is or is not a member, what do we do with these persons?
In my experience, and there's a part of me that hates to say this, a number of persons who leave a church are not shy about coming back to it when they find themselves in need of something. I have been blessed to commit to a single congregation for over twenty years now, and I can't tell you the number of times that someone has left our congregation, joined another congregation, and then come back to ask us for financial assistance when the bills get a little too far behind or when a loved one dies unexpectedly.
The emails always come out. "So-and-so, who attended here for a long time, is in financial need. To help with this burden, please contact the church office." Meanwhile, so-and-so's social media is filled with quotes and texts and shares from the church that so-and-so now attends and has been attending for 2, 3, 7 years.
Now, if we've set a policy that we only care in such ways for our 'members,' what are we supposed to do here?
The truth is that the answer to this question says more about who we are as a congregation than about our former brother or sister. Yes, it's heartbreaking that that person is no longer in our fellowship. Yes, it's frustrating that they've come knocking on our door instead of asking their new friends for help. Yes, it feels sometimes like someone is taking advantage of a community they are no longer investing in, a community that they have - in some regard - torn a thread from in their leaving. And it would be easy for us to turn our backs and say, no. Simply, no. You chose not to be part of our fellowship, so don't come knocking on our door when you have a need. Go ask the church where you actually spend your Sundays. Go ask the church where you now tithe.
But this attitude can only ever put a bitterness in our souls. Honestly. It can only make us sour toward those who have been part of our lives, part of our journey. These persons invested in us for a time; they are our brothers and sisters. (For that matter, even those who have not been with us for any length of time can be our brothers and sisters.) And a church cannot afford to be marked by bitterness.
That's why we can't draw lines about who's in and who's out. Because it never defines who they are; it only ever defines who we are.
And I am proud to say that I belong to a church that helps our brothers and sisters, whether they still journey with us or they have moved on. I am proud to say that we don't draw those lines. We help those who have left us just the same as we help those who are still with us. Because we are a church who responds to God's call for us to love one another, even when that love seems lost between us.
Because that's who we are.
And we couldn't be that if we were drawing lines about what makes a member and what doesn't, about who belongs and who doesn't, about who we're willing to invest in and who we aren't.
That's why these kinds of questions matter.