Twenty years ago, as a teenager, I was told it was as much use as a half eaten sausage roll on one hand but on the other it really mattered; besides being part of how we got anything done and a real part of our denominational identity it was about belonging and within that taking on a set of rights and responsibilities.
As time went on I realised that what I’d been told was true, particularly in a post-denominational world. On one hand church membership means nothing other than the right to, on a regular basis sit through some of the most bizarre discussions you’ve ever heard, then stick your hand up at the end either for or against and to be a statistic which will determine such things as your churches contribution to Home Mission. On the other hand it is about having the right to a say in the running of the family and being willing to submit yourself to the discipline of the family. It is about being standing up and saying I am part of this family and am willing to abide by the norms and values of this family.
In my experience the former definition of church membership that I give is the most common and the second one only comes to the fore when a real “issue” has emerged and normally ends up in somebody leaving the church having either jumped or been pushed. However, my understanding of church membership is that both bits are equally true and the second one should be the ordinary experience and view of membership. Church membership gives both the church and the individual rights and responsibilities regarding each other.
The reason that the second part of the definition is, in my general experience, brushed under the carpet and actively ignored is two fold: (i) there is an acceptance of hypocrisy within our churches that is not helpful or healthy and (ii) this hypocrisy is backed up by a culture of silence apart from when it suits our own agendas to be vocal about something or somebody we particularly disagree with.
The general view appears to be if we can’t see it then it is not happening and we don’t have to deal with it. For example (and it’s not one that applies to me but one I’ve seen happen in a former church) a church may feel that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but only take action about those they know are engaged in this activity it if people decide to co-habit (because when something becomes visible it becomes impossible to continue to engage in a corporate game of lets pretend).
The other thing that leads to this hypocrisy and silence is that often “the church” will teach one thing as biblical or not, according to the issue, and so take a particular line on an issue or behaviour but then, due to the realities of life in the 21st century accept the different behaviours or views as acceptable. This is because (i) it stops individuals having to deal with the reality of what taking a particular biblical stance means, (ii) people have an issue with telling those they love that they think they are wrong – they know that in taking a stance on an issue they will end up leaving the person feeling rejected, and (iii) alot of people give lip service to being “a bible believing people” but don’t actually mean it.
In addition to all this there is a view that becoming a member of a church is increasingly being seen as like becoming a member of the golf club in that it is something that signifies belonging but has no real significance, beyond saying this is what I give my time and money to. There is the view I happen to be a member of this church because at the moment it meets my needs but equally I could choose to move on and buy into another church which does or doesn’t have membership if that meets my needs.
Now I have to say I have a problem with all of this. I have already given my view on what church membership is and why it is important. So when I realised that there was an issue in my life and decisions which I was taking which could, potentially, at some point either now in the future cause the hypocrisy and silence to come into play I had to make a decision. Was I prepared to play the game or was I going to try and find a different way of being? Well I prayed hard about it, checked with somebody else that what I thought God was saying made sense and then resigned my church membership. However, I made the commitment at that point to myself, God and kind of to the church that I wasn’t going to run away. I am no longer a church member but will remain an active part of the congregation.
So if anybody is still reading this and particularly if anybody is reading who knows me IRL and wants to know “why?” the answer is this. I am not prepared to play the silence and hypocrisy game myself neither do I believe it would be right to put others in the position where they feel they have to play this game. I have a huge awareness of how much my church family love me, and I love them too much to hurt them by putting them in that position and I believe in basic Baptist principles about the nature of membership and church government too much to say that they don’t matter. Similarly I am not about to pretend I have the dominant interpretation of scripture on certain issues but equally I am not prepared to say the bible doesn’t matter and deny the Lordship of Jesus and all that is involved there.
So there you have it – sorry if that was a very long post and thanks for bearing with me if you are still there, but I wanted to explain it all as much as I feel is appropriate.