What does it mean to be a "member" of the First Baptist Church of Christ?
Is a member someone who was baptized in the 1960s following Vacation Bible School, but has not been seen or heard from since?
Is a member someone who was once active in our church but moved away years ago and never joined another congregation? And what exactly is a "non-resident" member? How can one be a member of a church without being ever being present to the church?
Is a member someone who drifted out of active participation with a local community of faith, years ago, but still shows up for the Christmas Eve Service?
Or is a member someone who worships with us most Sundays, supports the church with her prayers, presence, and financial gifts, is willing to help with Vacation Bible School or go on a mission trip, when asked, but has never "walked the aisle"?
According to the formal canons of membership in most churches, everyone described above is considered a member of the church except the last! Go figure.
A recent article in The Christian Century titled, "What's Happening to Church Membership?", got me thinking about this. According to the article, many people today identify with a congregation to the point of real connection and commitment, without ever formally affiliating. Younger people especially are most prone to connect through informal networks of relationships rather than through institutional rituals.
Most Sundays at the top of Poplar, I see many beloved fellow pilgrims who "belong" to our church but have never joined. Some don't see the point. Some recoil at the thought of promenading to the front of the church in front of a gawking crowd. Some fear taking that final step of commitment.
Would I like to see these friends "join" our church? Yes. Because "joining," clarifies our relationship. In such an act of celebration and consecration, a congregation and a seeker make public their covenant of trust and commitment to Christ and to one another.
But meanwhile, at the dawn of the 21rst century, we may need to rethink what membership means. The older, bureaucratic model of congregations needs to give way to a more Jesus-friendly, New Testament-like understanding of membership as belonging not to an institution, but "to one another" (Ephesians 4:25).
In other words, we need to be more an organism than an organization. We are not a civic club, after all, but a body, the body of Christ.