A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a discussion about the nature of the church body. Specifically, the question was raised about whether or not churches "should" (in other words, is it Christlike?) charge its members for things like weddings and funerals and perhaps other various uses of the church building and resources.
On the surface, it seems like an almost silly question, but it draws us into something much deeper that we certainly do need to think seriously, and prayerfully, about. And that deeper question is this:
What makes a person a 'member' of a church?
Now, really, we get here because we have to acknowledge that once we start making the 'services' of the church free for 'members,' we're going to have a line of persons standing outside of our doors ready to take advantage of that. We're going to have young engaged couples asking how many Sunday services they have to attend to have a free wedding. We're going to have grieving families ask how many tithes they have to make to have a free funeral. We're going to have persons in the world who see an opportunity to get 'something' for 'nothing' and who can 'force themselves' to sit through a handful of sermons if it means saving thousands of dollars.
So we have to think about how we define membership in a church.
The question is more complicated than it seems. At first glance, it's tempting to want to say, well, that depends on what we're defining by membership. There's a big difference between asking at what point we put someone on the prayer list and at what point we offer them a free wedding. Or between when we're willing to offer them financial assistance for a need and when we're willing to comp an entire funeral. Or between when we know them by name and when we make them our official door greeter as part of the ambassador ministry.
All of a sudden, the first thing we seem to do when we ask what a 'member' is is to create levels of membership, essentially by asking, "That depends - what do they want from us?"
This is, of course, extremely unhealthy and nowhere near Christlike.
And, if we're being honest, it doesn't really make the question any easier. We're still left wrestling with what our threshold is for fellowship in our community.
Is it regular attendance at a set number of Sunday services over a defined period of time? Okay, then what period of time? A year? Two years? Three months? What is magical about the number that we choose here? How warm does a pew have to be for you to 'belong' in it?
Is it attendance at Sunday services PLUS participation in a Bible class? What kind of Bible class?
Is it baptism? That's easy enough. There are a lot of persons in this world willing to get a little wet to save a few thousand dollars. Do we then have to decide which baptisms are 'legitimate' acts of the heart, or is the physical action enough for us?
Is it regular tithing? When I had this discussion with a group of friends, someone raised the idea that tithing 'must' be part of membership. So now, we're awarding membership based on giving? That seems like a slippery slope.
Maybe it's service. Are you a member if you give of your time in service to the church in some way, if you're serving on some kind of ministry team? That's gonna be tough in some smaller churches that don't have a lot of established programs. Do you qualify, then, for a free wedding if you come in and dust the pews that haven't been used in a while? Are we now exchanging grace for works?
You see what I'm getting at - what seems like an almost silly question becomes a deeply fundamental one. It demands for us to define our terms, to set our parameters, to talk about who we are and what it means to be part of our community. What it means to be part of our fellowship.
What is a 'member' of the church anyway?
Let's talk about this some more this week.