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Membership

In the 1980s, American Express commercials told us "Membership has its privileges." I never understood that. Other cards like Visa and MasterCard didn't call their cardholders members, and the effect seemed the same to me: spend money at our merchants using our card and then you can have the privilege of paying us back with interest--member or not. Some people I knew who were very loyal to American Express insisted that it was better, but as far as I could tell it was like the difference between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip. I could never tell those apart, and to be honest, I didn't ever really like either. What does it mean to be a member? Does it mean buying into some made-up prestige? Does it mean chasing loyalty points that you can only spend where they tell you?

When I was a teenager, I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 175 of Decatur, Georgia. In this case, membership made more sense to me. There were people and relationships and shared values that I was committed to. There was a place and a habit of meeting together and behaviors and rituals--in short, culture--that we shared. We learned things together, like camping skills and how to be good citizens. We worked to accomplish things together, like service projects for Eagle Scouts, putting on a display at the Scout Show, and winning competitions vs. other troops. We overcame problems together, like keeping everyone dry on a rainy camping weekend, or helping rebuild our camp mess hall after a tornado. American Express has nothing like those experiences.

What is required to be a member of the church? Our Book of Order lists two things: "A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church" (G-1.0302). Trust in God's grace, and a desire to become a part. That's it. The Book of Order makes doubly sure the point is clear by saying it again in the negative: "No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith."

After that, we might turn the relationship around. Instead of what is required of people to be a member, we might ask what is required of members? "Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church" (G-1.0304). That's a pretty vague job description. The Book of Order goes on to list specifics, but they're all presented only as examples. It all boils down to participate. Proclaim the good news, take part in worship, care for and pray for each other, give time, talents or money, demonstrate to the world how the kingdom of God should work, care for the world.

Because there are so many particular ideas listed here, you might be overwhelmed, but there is also a certain freedom in figuring out your own way of participating. One of the things listed is to review the integrity of your own membership. In self-reflection and discernment, you have freedom to change how you participate in your congregation and the larger church. As you go through life, you might shift your interests and talents and find ways to use your new interests and talents for the community and for the church universal. Whatever it is you are doing, a summary of what's expected of you is to stay engaged and participate.

What does membership mean in the church? Our Book of Order discusses membership:

In Jesus Christ, God calls people to faith and to membership in the Church, the body of Christ. Baptism is the visible sign of that call and claim on a human life and of entrance into the membership of the church. . . . God’s gift of grace calls forth a response of faithfulness. Thus, the triune God, incarnate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, gives to the Church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership (G-1.0301).

Membership in the church is beyond participation and loyalty. We are members of the body of Christ like my thumb is a member of my own body. We are literally incorporated (included in the body by the Latin roots: in corpus) into one another in a way that no other organization can claim.

What does THAT mean for us? First, what is a cut-off relationship but an amputation of one of the members of our body? It means we can't abide cut-off. If something causes two of us to not like each other, we have to keep trying to like each other--we have to keep trying to reconcile. We have to muster all our stubborn will to CHOOSE to like each other.


Last, I think of another paragraph in the Book of Order just before all this. Our polity--our way of organizing ourselves into congregations and electing Ruling Elders to govern us and keep us connected to the larger denomination--"presupposes the fellowship of [people] united in covenant relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests on the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love" (G-1.0102). Think about that: we ASSUME fellowship. We don't work toward it; we start with it. The people we see in the pews, the people we work with on committees, the people we serve alongside as we care for the world--those people are our friends, and it is our joy to be with each other. That fellowship, trust, joy, and love is what makes membership in the Body of Christ special.

--Chas

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