Membership has its privileges. Or does it?

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. – Groucho Marx

I’ve never been a joiner.

Perhaps it’s my personality type. I’m an INTJ and a 4 on the Eneagramm. I am the most original person in the world, damnit. I can’t be a part of no club.

Perhaps it’s because I am either the youngest Gen Xer or the oldest Millennial. I don’t like or trust institutions, or I find them completely irrelevant and useless.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an artist. I have rarely had the support of the establishment. That is, until they needed what I had in order to sell something or make themselves feels better.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an ex-Fundegelical. I know the stories and themes of being “an alien in this world,” and have been encouraged to view my life as something that will be persecuted. Standing apart is a birthright.

Perhaps (ironically) it’s because I’m a young, straight, white male. I can exist in our world with ease. I do not need validation for who I am because that validation is present all around me.

Whatever the reason(s), I’m discovering that I’m not alone. There are a lot of people who are not joiners.

The easiest explanation for the current crop of non-joiners is that the internet has made the world a place where we can self-actualize at an alarming rate. We can be, do, and say whatever it is we want to be, do, and say without a lot of fuss. And this has caused a lot of problems for Church Folk.

My friend Carol Howard Merritt addresses “non joining” with authority in her book Tribal Church. Using more facts and figures than Ben Bernanke at a Senate hearing, Carol makes as strong of a case as one could make for the lack of “joining” on the part of Young Adults. She reminds us of the fragile financial state of YAs, which contributes to the transient nature of their living arrangements (if they’re not living in their old room at Mom and Dad’s). Carol’s testimony, certainly, is not the whole reason, but it has to be a significant part of it.

Further, in the upcoming issue of PLGRM, we will feature an interview with two of our favorite Twitizens, Megan and David Hansen, in which they share about their thinking behind #epicenterofmatrimony (their uber-awesome wedding hashtag). In the interview, it is revealed how they deftly walk the line between acknowledging our calling to be part of somethign larger than ourelves and the reality that that “something” no longer need be physical. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Since writing Open Source Church, I’ve thought a lot about church membership. I can give you all the standard reasons why one should join a church, but I’m not sure that those reasons are really good ones anymore. Perhaps the truest reason I can say that the very idea of “church membership” has begun to get under my skin is that it has ceased to be about conforming me to the image of Christ and more about my cash.

The Head Tax

I’m sure that most denominations have some form of uniform giving expectation. In the Presbyterian Church, it is called the per capita apportionment. Most folks, however (rightly or wrongly), call it “The Head Tax.” For every member in a congregation, a certain amount is requested to support the ministries of the broader levels of the church.

I’m not blind to organizational realities. My current employment is tied, in large part, to this apportionment. If we are going to have a denominational structure that is functional and allows us to do things together that we would not be able to do alone, then some sort of organized giving method is a must.

Further, even if there’s not a “dues” system in place, what congregation does not fret over the budget every year? One of my good friends is the Stewardship Guy at the congregation I previously served, and I know his pain. O Lord, hear our prayer…

Cash affects almost every decision that a church makes. And it should no be so. Too often, despite best intentions, the concern for the spiritual health and well being of people takes a backseat to cash for the budget. Truly, we plan programs, etc for the benefit of people, but when it comes time to assess their “success” what is the criteria? How much, how often, and how many.

But its not just church boards. It is us, the people in the pew, as well. We pay our dues… I’m sorry, we offer our tithes and offerings, and we expect services in return. We rarely understand church to be anything other than a place where we receive Religious Goods and Services. All the fuss over pastoral work hours is because “that’s what we pay them to do.”

We are spiritual consumers. To be a member is to be part of a Columbia House arrangement: I pay you, you send me stuff. If I do not pay, you cut me off.

I don’t like that.

Church membership should not be about cash. It should be, in the first place, about something else.

I am 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag

When I taught confirmation classes and covered the Reformed idea of “Total Depravity,” I would define it for the kids as being “10 pounds of $#!+ in a 5 pound bag.”* No, I didn’t cuss in front of your kids, but I did try to get through to them that, while everything else in their life tells them how amazing they are, the truth is that being human means being an asshole.

Now: I have friends whom I love and respect who are going to argue this point in the comments…which I will not respond to.🙂 I’m not opposed to alternate points of view on this, but I see evidence for Total Depravity every day of my life, and it is this truth that forms my understanding of what membership is and should be.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said that the Church is where we come into contact with the “influencing spirit of Christ.” The Holy Spirit compels us to be drawn together to share with others in the experience we have had of utter and total dependency on God. It is with this community, with these people, that we begin to more fully experience the Risen Christ and be conformed to the image of that Christ. All the practices of “being Church with and for one another” should change every aspect of our lives. Being people who embody the Missio Dei should be a matter of course.

And, yet, we have morphed our understanding of what a congregation is into a social service organization with a weekly pep rally for its contributors. Do not misunderstand: I believe the people of the church should regularly band together to care for the “widow, orphan, and stranger” but I’m not convinced that the organization called the “congregation” should be the central, organizing force of that.

What I am advocating is something similar to what the Church of the Saviorbegan almost 70 years ago.

[The] desire for intimacy and accountability among members of the church is what led the community to break into smaller congregations rather than try to grow larger as a single church. It has also led to the formation of small groups called “mission groups”, made up of 2 to 15 members gathered around a shared sense of vocation or God’s calling.

Read through the linked Wikipedia article on CoS. You will see that they are living something radically different than what you and I normally experience. However, more and more, I hear from disaffected Christians and non-Christians alike that they would “do church” in a heartbeat if church were about serving one another and the world rather than cash.

There’s an ad campaign that used to say “Membership has its privileges.” In the Christian Church I believe that the only privilege we should be afforded is the privilege of serving others.

I’d probably join that.

*I would give credit to the friend who originally said this, but I’m not sure how s/he would feel about that.🙂

12 thoughts on “Membership has its privileges. Or does it?”

      1. I’d like to see different membership questions that focus on growing as disciples in language that is not archaic. I’d start with asking each individual who is seeking membership who Jesus is to them now, and then have the questions focus on promising to grow individually and with the community to be more like Jesus. Or something like that.

  1. Worship, caring and mission are the primary things that unite our folks. In fact, our directory is a blur of members and friends. Friends are non-joiners for any number of reasons. They include weekly worshipers and young adults living far away who still call our little church home. We’ve even received longtime friends as new members the same day we’ve ordained them as officers.

  2. I (we) have been thinking about this very thing. Trying to invite “members” into some accountability to the message of Christ, while not setting “requirements”.

    I like where your head’s at.

  3. Well said. I actually had our youth spend a week with CoS in 2009. Youth still talk about it as one of the best pilgrimages they have had! They modeled missional ecclesiology before Guder became cool.

    See a post I made here:

    My question: what does all this mean for how we as a church teach youth about membership? I have struggled because what they see modeled is what you say above. Yet some of the more faithful contributors to the church are not members. So why join?

    I have written about this before, too, thinking about the fading uniqueness in a post Christian world. When church becomes about input output cash flow, we lose our distinctive identity.

    Thanks for your musings and voice


  4. Interesting read. I have found it personally challenging to invite people to church during a capital appeal. Don’t get me wrong – I am all for the overdue expansion and even support it financially – but wonder how it might “scare” a visitor for some of the very reasons you mentioned

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