Joining church: member of a club or part of a community?

MEMBERS_ONLY_jacket_tagI was recently following an interesting conversation on a denominational Facebook page about confirmation for those with developmental disabilities. It ended up mostly posts by an advocate for people with developmental disabilities, who started it by asking what the essential concepts are that need to be understood for confirmation to be meaningful, and the denominational employee who monitors the page.

In this particular denomination, as in others, confirmation includes reaffirming baptismal vows as well as taking membership vows to become a professing member of the church, so the discussion focused on these. As the denominational representative noted, the baptismal or membership vows cannot be altered. How then, the advocate asked, can we ask people to take vows when they cannot understand the language used in them? The denominational representative quoted from the denomination’s rule book and noted that anyone who is baptized is a baptized member of the church, but in order to be a professing member people must be able to take the vows themselves.

While noting that the denominational representative was correct about the church rules, the advocate also stated that she “no longer believes that intellect and understanding have anything to do with faith or belonging to a church. The criteria you consistently refer to are human-made, not God-made.”

As I reflected on the two varying opinions of what the criteria should be for letting someone become a member of a church, I thought about the difference in thinking between modern and post-modern people. Rick Chromey in Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church talks about four areas where we see a change in thinking and one of these is a change from “club to community.” He notes that in years past, there was a club mentality in our culture that valued structure, passivity, and membership, but “members only” clubs are dying now and being replaced by communities with minimal membership rules. This is seen most clearly on the internet where people gather on websites and in chat rooms to talk about their hobbies, interests, and lifestyles. Over the years the church became like a club with its own rules and rituals but, to post-modern thinkers, this club mentality is not accepted.

It follows that there appears to be an increasingly widening area of disagreement between those who adhere to the modern concept of church membership as something which must be earned by adhering to a set doctrine and the post-modern idea that church is a community open to all those who want to be a part of it. In a blog by Jeff Brumley entitled “Young adults challenging traditional church membership concepts,” the author states that “older folks see church membership as logical and necessary while Millennials and other young people say it makes no sense.” Bob Ballance, senior minister at Pine Street Church in Boulder, Colorado, says that the Millennials in his church “see meaningful participation in church life as more important than being on the rolls. Older members sometimes don’t get it.”

Church consultant George Bullard notes that something that has been happening for about the past three decades in North America has now become mainstream and is impacting the traditional church significantly enough that “virtually everyone is noticing it.” Seeking to address this thirty years ago:

“The pastors and other leaders of newer, innovative congregations began to talk about the word ‘connecting’ rather than the word ‘membership,’” he [Bullard] said. “They suggested that adults during the first half of their adulthood desire to connect with one or more communities of faith, rather than to be members of one community of faith.”

Even then, before the rise of the Millennial generation, some young Christians were drawn more to “movements of meaning and significance rather than organizations with patterns and habits that appear to be in a rut,” Bullard said.

Brumley concludes his article by quoting Ballance who, while noting that some older Christians are worried that younger Christians are not committed, states that younger people complain too: “The whole concept of membership smacks of exclusivity and they have no interest in it – but they do want to be involved.”


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