Membership is Killing the Church

“Do I need to be a member to receive communion?” Susan asked me. She is someone who attends worship frequently at St. Mark, but is not a member. “Well, that depends on the Church,” I answered, “but here at St. Mark, you are definitely welcome to receive communion if you are not a member.”  She followed up: “Do I need to be baptized to be a member?” 

And herein lies the killer. As badly as I wanted to assure her that she could fully participate in the life of this congregation, the answer was absolutely no, you cannot be a member unless you are baptized. 

How did we get here? When did the church’s ability to fully care for, minister to, include, and serve hinge on a religious conversion and organizational membership? My guess, which is supported by the well-documented sociological shift sometime between the boomer generation and millenials is that in previous generations, formal membership in a religious institution was a benchmark of upright civil citizenship. Today, not so much, with a reported rise in disaffiliation with religion and suspicion of institutions in general. 

Yet the pews of our churches, whether we are aware or not, seat people who identify as not-religious, agnostic, even atheist, and are not baptized, nor do they want to be bapitized. And not just our pews, but all of the ministries and events that the church hosts.

And the Church doesn’t allow them to be included as part of the community. They don’t count.

These non-religious folk participate for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps they are interested in scripture (particularly because it is so often used in social/political discourse). Maybe they regularly are fed by the community’s food programs or meals. Maybe they appreciate the fellowship of the social events. Maybe they like to sing in the choir, because they appreciate sacred music. Maybe they need pastoral care related to some life-issues. Maybe they find a way to serve the community in which they live through the ministry of the congregation. 

All of our congregations do so much more than baptize non-christians and hold worship services to offer the sacraments. Whether we are engaged in politics at rallies and protests, providing community service, collecting donations, hosting 12-step groups, or even holding Zumba or yoga classes in our basements and halls, we engage many people in many ways. 

So why is identifying as a member of these communities defined solely by being baptized and attending worship?

It’s a question worth considering. If full-participation in the congregation means becoming baptized (and Lutheran, in my case), then it would seem that the work we are about is making more baptized Lutherans. If that is NOT the purpose of the community, then why would we require it for full-participation? 

It’s a question of how we spent our time, talents, and resources. If we are in the work of making more Lutherans, then mostly everything we do should be to that end. And despite all of the work that congregations do that work to a broader end, well when it comes down to annual reporting, much administrative time, attention, and money is spent to report baptized membership and giving – a common indicator of the “health” of the congregation. 

Susan still attends worship, but she doesn’t receive communion. I can’t say I blame her. She attends because she appreciates the welcome she receives, the friendliness of the community, and the messages of unconditional love and kindness for herself and others that she hears from sermons. When I complete my annual parochial report, I count Susan as one of the nebulous individuals who, outside of membership, “actively participate in the life of the congregation.” She will always be a “them” in the us/them dichotomy that Church membership institutes. It is her community, even though she can’t participate fully. 

And therein lies the killer. 

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