Church membership is a tricky issue. Lately, it has been an even trickier issue in the United Methodist Church. How wide do we open the gate of the church, seems to be the question. Do we let anyone in who wants in, or do we use a heavy background check? Whose responsibility is membership is it the church, or is it the individual? Lots of good questions on membership, here is my take.
First, a little background. I’m United Methodist born and bred, and I am a huge fan of John Wesley. I especially love early Methodism’s emphasis on scriptural holiness spurred on by Class Meetings. Class Meetings were the requirements for everyone in the society (Wesley was still a part of the Anglican church, so this was similar to our modern day congregation, but not exactly equivalent) . Requirements for the class meetings are desiring to flee from the wrath to come and continued attendance. I have lately been influenced by church’s that have carried on in the spirit of that tradition and have requirements for membership.
First, I believe that the church has a commitment to the whole world. It is part of our great commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We have a commitment to everyone, everywhere. I believe that we are supposed to particularly focus on the community that we have been placed in and to live incarnationally for that community that we have been called to. Therefore we are called to be the church for the 50 year member and the 25 year old atheist. We are the church for both, which means we need to respond as the church to the needs of those placed under our care. We visit both in the hospital. We feed both as they have need. We love them both as our brother and sister. We care for their bodies and their souls.
I also believe in what Paul says in the letter to the Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” As those in our family, we take a special interest to them. Our bond with one another is closer. Practically, we know when they are sick. We know their faces, and we can sense when they are struggling. So, the church especially takes care of their own, but I don’t think it is to be like some secret society. Instead, we take care of one another, so that we can be best equipped to take care of the world.
In fact, church membership has less to do with the church and more to do with the individual. I heard Adam Hamilton say that church membership comes with no privileges, only responsibility. When you join a United Methodist church, you join on three levels as Christian first, United Methodist second, and particular conversation third. You first affirm that you are a Christian having a relationship with the Triune God and seek to live out your faith in Jesus Christ.
When you join a local United Methodist church, you align yourself theologically with the United Methodist church. That means you understand the theological heritage of the United Methodist church, and you can live in that system. You may not agree entirely, but, I feel, that you need to affirm the basic doctrines of the church found in our articles of religion. Additionally, you choose to live under the system of polity and discipleship of the UM church. It does not have to be done dogmatically, but this is how one chooses to live out their faith.
Finally, you join a particular church and covenant to support it with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. You choose to live as a member of this particular church and its structure. If presence is defined as attending worship and being part of a discipleship group, you commit to that. If gifts are defined as tithing, you are covenanting to that. Each particular church should have its own covenant for living out their faith.
Membership to a church is a big deal to me. It is an aligning of yourself with a particular church, Church, and faith. It requires commitment and covenant. It requires faithfulness and grace. It should not be entered into lightly, but prayerfully. I believe that there should be membership requirements to join a United Methodist Church that include an understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a United Methodist. Membership, like any covenant, is a sacrificing of who you are for something bigger. You are also opening yourself to be accountable. If you are not living up to the covenant, the church has a responsibility to hold you accountable and encourage you in your faith. If you are not willing to live under the covenants, then you shouldn’t join a church. You should participate in a church, and a good church shouldn’t prevent participation via membership. However, leadership from a church should spring up from its membership.
I’d be curious as to what you think. I know I kinda rambled a little bit here, but I wanted to go ahead and get it posted, it’s been so long since I’ve blogged. Enjoy.