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Church membership: why so rigid?

There are circumstances when we could become part of different churches at the same time, argues Michael Shaw


When my Dad was alive he was a member of three “clubs”. His main club was the Conservative club a few minutes down the road, but he also had the constitutional club near his work, and a social club, a short drive from home. The latter did not show the football on Sundays, so he could get some peace and quiet.

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He was a member of all three: he served his main one by being on the committee and eventually became a life member, but he had the other two in case he needed somewhere while at work (or when he could not stand the football).

When we think of membership with regard to churches, we are much more solid in our thinking. We are a member of one church, which we go to on a Sunday. We serve it and it serves us. If we get fed up, feel called somewhere else, move, fall out with the leader, then we leave that church and eventually either join another or transfer our membership.

However, it strikes me there is little thought or provision made to the idea that we could be members of different churches for different reasons.

When my wife and I first moved to Plymouth, we occasionally went to the larger city church in the evening. It had a younger congregation, lively worship and as a NAM (Newly Accredited Minister) I felt I needed some teaching myself. We do not have an evening service, so it was actually quite helpful to us. But I felt slightly guilty doing it: I felt like I was betraying my church through my presence there...

Yet, why do we see membership as so inflexible? Why can we only be a member of one church at one time? Why can’t we become part of different churches at the same time? Because they can serve different purposes. Maybe we could be part of mid-week house group near our work, go to a local small church in the morning to serve and support, and then to a bigger church in the evening to get some input. Why have we made membership so inflexible, so limited?

Now I can see the possible problem that living in a consumer-driven culture could bring about. We could end up serving none of them, just taking from each congregation what we want, and leaving nothing behind, serving none of them, getting what we need in a very detached way. That danger is always a possibility.

There is little thought or provision made to the idea that we could be members of different churches for different reasons.

But the fact is that some people do that anyway: some people are pew fillers, content to sit at the back, maybe for a season or maybe because they are just happy that way. If we worried that some people may just take from the church and not give or serve, well that happens already!

Greater flexibility in the way we see church membership may prevent Empire building, as we see people not as resources to build our Empire, but Kingdom people who serve the Kingdom in various contexts where it is appropriate. It may halt the decline in inner city: rather than feeling we have to make a choice between a church that has all the great kids work we need, and the small church that needs help, can't we do both? Where musicians cannot get a spot at the big church, because of its semi-professional band, they can happily serve in the smaller church one or two Sundays a month.

There are currently a lot of conversations about Membership and Covenant, where we are talking about moving from a membership role to a covenantal model. Maybe in this process we need to think about what it means to belong in general?  

The Revd Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth

Michael Shaw, 24/11/2014
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