For decades (if not centuries) the church has functioned with/by an exclusionist language and system: membership. Before ever joining a sports team or club, I can remember being familiar with the word membership from my time at church. Growing up it was conveyed to me by others that membership meant one was an insider. In a way, it felt as if the simple act of membership separated the saved from the heathen. For many people on Sunday morning, you were either a member or a non-member—no in-between. It served as the password to enter into the private clubhouse and enjoy all the special amenities. Membership, or the lack thereof, unfortunately has shaped our views on entitlement, giving (offering), and even mission and ministry in the church. As I reflect on our congregation’s recent update of the church facility use agreement language—and the intentional removal of membership-oriented language—I wonder how long, and with what amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth it will take for us here to move toward a more loving and welcoming way of speaking about all God’s people, both those baptized and not.
Membership is—to use Martin Luther's definition of sin: "being curved inwardly on oneself." In years past (perhaps not that long ago) churches operated by policies and guidelines that spelled out with significant detail the line drawn between members and non-members, including stipulations and fees for those who were not part of the congregation, compared to a usually nonexistent member fee. The “careful” language, which at first was used to protect property, ultimately—and more clearly over time—in itself has spoken explicit distrust toward those on the outside and demonstrates a hierarchy of those on the inside. Membership has meant free-reign, whereas hurdles, unwritten exceptions, and overt scrutiny have been marks of non-membership. As the church witnesses a dramatic exodus from its sanctuaries, narthexes, and front doors, many things are being called to question—particularly, how we baptized Christians understand and speak about ourselves in relation to others beyond our walls.
At the end of the third chapter of his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul discusses the purpose of the law. The law, Paul says, served as the disciplinarian for transgressions the people committed. It determined right from wrong—not giving life, but only working to establish justice in a world broken by sin. In the revelation of Jesus Christ, however, the law is deemed inferior. In his death and resurrection Christ gives us life, whereas the law could only condemn. Now with Christ, we are justified not by our works (the things we do or don’t do), but by God’s grace through faith. Trusting this promise of new life we receive in the Crucified and Risen One makes us free from all previous distinctions. Therefore, what once separated us has died and been washed away so that we may live in the oneness (unity) of Christ Jesus. In a social system where lines were solid and rigid regarding who was in and out, wealthy and poor, righteous and unrighteous, the Apostle is making a radical claim: our identity is received in and through Christ alone. This new identity is not like the world’s hierarchical ladder where a few win and most lose, but is instead a place of mutuality where all are loved, cared for, and respected as beloved children of God. Anything that serves to distinguish, and in turn hurts another, is done away with so that all may live together in love.
We cannot, in good faith, continue to speak, assemble, or serve by means of membership versus non-membership. To carry Paul’s radical message a step further toward its fullness: “…there is no longer members and non-members.” We are called to bear the image of the people of God. Each of us is created in God’s likeness and claimed as very good. This imagery is not reserved to those inside the four walls of the church building, but includes all of humanity—altogether Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, baptized or not, weekly attendant or Christmas and Easter-only, etc. we form the people of God. We must die to our old, broken ways of thinking if we are to be the church in the world—called to love and serve all people. This means no longer speaking or acting with a sense of membership. We must think and live with a newness of mind we receive from the Crucified and Risen Christ alone if we are to continue forward in our mission and ministries for decades and centuries to come. We are—ALL—both within the congregation and beyond our sight, the people of God.
Instead of the outdated 3 C’s of membership: confirmed, communed, and contributing; what if we paid more attention to the 3 C’s of baptism: cleansed, claimed, and called. We are cleansed in the waters of baptism—dying to sin and being raised to new life with Christ—freed to live not by distinctions, but in a beautiful unity as Christ’s body at work in the world. We are claimed as daughters and sons of God—an identity we cannot lose nor undo—the only “label” that counts for anything. We are called to go out sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with all people—bringing them to church, not for the sake of building membership, but to encounter Christ’s presence with and among the people of God. The church is not something owned by members, but a gift from God. Our offering should be given with the expectation that it will benefit others, and not us. Mission and ministries are faithful witnesses to Christ when they serve others and point back to the one who makes all things new. May we be intentional in the way we speak and act so as to live and serve—not as members, holding the keys to some closed club, but as People of God, welcoming all in with love.