A few weeks ago our family visited a nearby church on a Sunday morning. Following the service of worship, we were delayed long enough in the foyer/lobby/narthex area to catch the eye of one of the ministers serving on the staff. This person approached us, smiled, and introduced themselves. This is a very large congregation, and, as such, the greeting was hedged softly by an acknowledgement that we might have been around the church for a very long time and had not yet met, or maybe even that we had met, but the meeting was not recollected. But if we were new, this person would help us get connected, and by connected, this person meant involvement in a Sunday school or a small group.
At this time, our family had only recently entered a change in circumstance where we are no longer tethered to a local congregation. Molly nor I are on a church staff. We’re now free to visit congregations as we decide, and so far, we’ve chosen to visit friends serving in various places throughout our community (we enjoy encouraging pastor friends) or attend a service of worship where our children will see their friends. Molly is an elder in the United Methodist Church, and though she is not appointed to a pastorate, she is a member of the Central Texas Annual Conference, and soon she will join the membership of a local Methodist church.
Back to our Sunday morning visit. The minister greeting us asked us, repeatedly, if we had a “church home.” We evaded. We dodged. We dipped and sidestepped and deflected and qualified. It was only later we realized we didn’t have an answer, and that our lack of an answer yielded a lot of confusion.
We do have a “church.” But we do not have a “church home.” We are not members of a local fellowship. Not at present. We have not been in this position in twenty years, where we were actively discerning with whom to join in ministry apart from a designated or assigned or appointed pastoral leadership position.
I think church membership is important, even if the meaning of church membership is seldom explained or considered in depth. Anyone who professes Christ, who is a Christian, is a member of the body of Christ, and is, therefore, joined to his body. Membership formalizes what we believe to be true through faith.
Membership carries with it not only certain rights, such as the ability to vote on congregational decisions, but responsibilities, such as demonstrating maturity in Christ, evidenced by humility, servitude, gathering with the fellowship for worship, giving generously of one’s resources, practicing hospitality, knowledge of the Scriptures, engaged discipleship, fervency in prayer, passion for evangelism, fruitfulness in ministry, and more. Formally joining a local body is aligning oneself with a theological reality. When I have met a Christian person who is a consistent visitor in any congregation where I’ve served, I have encouraged them to join, not only as an encouragement to the existing membership, but as a means of accountability and edification for the person yet to join. Strengthen the tie, and you up the stakes.
As we look ahead, I am resolved to be prayerfully discerning, seeking, and focused regarding church membership. We are not looking for a “church,” or even a “church home,” even though I know what is meant when we are asked such things. Rather, I am looking to join a membership. I am looking to be a participant in congregational life, not a resident, or, worse, a consumer. What am I looking for?
Christlike character displayed by those in leadership.
An inner confirmation from the Spirit of God.
A commitment to discipleship among congregants and pastoral leaders.
Humble sharing of the gospel, and a desire to see others come to faith.
Preaching of the Word.
A love for children, and a respect for the aged.
A worship leader wearing trendy sneakers, a tastefully untucked flannel shirt, and a ball cap with appropriately worshipful tilt. Very low on the list of priorities. So low as to be nearly imperceptible. (I jest. I jest. About which part? I’ll leave you to wonder.)
Other things. Many other things.
Finding a church is easy. There are many churches.
Belonging to a church isn’t hard. There are many degrees of belonging. You can visit and be welcomed. You can become a longtime attendee and feel you belong.
But committing to a church, and serving in a way that builds up the body, that’s a challenge.
Our family longs for stability. We seek consistency. We want to be rooted. We even want a faith community that feels like home, even while we’re contented with having a church.
Wherever we land, if that church is to become a home, it will need ministers (and members) like the one I described in my opening paragraph, people who are courageous enough to walk up to a stranger, extend a hand, share a smile, offer a greeting, and serve as a shepherd. Churches cannot become homes, for anyone, without hosts, without those who in small ways image forth the Christian conviction that God came in Jesus Christ to expand the household of faith, and that Jesus went to his death, and was resurrected, to go and prepare a place for us, to claim and welcome us, to embrace us as God’s beloved, members of an eternal family, companions on the road leading to the New Jerusalem, and citizens, now, in the kingdom of heaven.