Church membership

Today’s Church, Sacraments & Ministry tutorial was most frustrating. The initial discussion was on the subject of ‘confirmation’ and the Church of Scotland’s somewhat confused approach to it. Is it confirmation, affirmation, profession of faith, membership, admission to communion roll? Or even some mish-mash of all of these? Anyway, the main topic of conversation ended up being membership. There were a number of comments about how ‘membership’, of any organisation, is no longer seen as the done thing. “People don’t want to commit to anything these days.” “You can’t force people to join.” “Talking about membership will scare people away.” “Requiring vows of commitment and having expectations on people is not the gospel message.”

There were plenty of anecdotes about how welcoming churches are and how they engender a sense of belonging. There were also plenty about lack of welcome and plain old rudeness. None of these things is a membership issue and we should be welcoming of all who step through the church doors. Even at communion, that place where, for so long, a degree of segregation was maintained through communion cards, is much more welcoming, and rightly so. The typical words of invitation are that the table is open to ‘all who love the Lord’ even though the ‘normal’ procedure within the CofS is that it is open to those who have been baptised (but that’s just another example of the lack of joined up theology and liturgy in this whole area). There are no expectations placed on those who come to communion. There are no membership classes to be gone through, no resolutions by the Kirk Session or public professions of faith before someone can participate in the Lord’s Supper. Yet we still use the terminology of communicant roll, admission to the Lord’s table and so on in the administrative side of the church.

But when it comes to membership, then that’s a different kettle of fish. Does it need a liturgy of confirmation simply to commit to being involved in church life? Is it not merely an administrative task? Yet at the same time, becoming a member of a church is a big deal for many people. It does represent a deeper sense of commitment, often as a response to a recognition of coming to faith or of a new ‘level’ of faith which draws them into a deeper desire to serve. that’s not to say that non-members cannot contribute to the life of a church. But it does raise issues for the Church of Scotland. Its practices and procedures do not allow involvement in the church courts unless you are a member. You have no say in the calling of a minister to your particular charge if you are not a member. So, regardless of whether ‘membership’ is a dirty word, you cannot escape the reality of it in the CofS.

I’ve no doubt that there are good and bad ways of approaching the issue, but you cannot duck out of the responsibility of dealing with it. And the issue of tying it, in some way, to a rite of passage such as public profession of confirmation is something that also need to be dealt with. Does profession of faith make you a member of a church (or perhaps more accurately, a member of a congregation)? And surely it’s only reasonable to expect someone to understand the membership vows they are to be taking and, more importantly, expect them to make such a commitment in the first place and hence the need for membership classes.

Yes I can see how membership and commitment and expectations would be an anathema to many in today’s society, and I can also see how it might be off-putting to those who might be fragile and simply want to feel that sense of belonging, but I don’t think that they can be set aside entirely. They may need to be dealt with more sensitively and there may need to be a bit of theological, liturgical and practical sorting out, but scripture never says that following Jesus means coming and going as you please, living a life that is unchanged or being commitment-shy. It may be that society does promote these values, but the Christian life is, in so many ways, counter-cultural.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is that the CofS needs to separate its theological practice from its administrative practice and then work out where they need to join back up again rather than the somewhat messy mix we have at the moment.

9 responses to “Church membership”

  1. There was a time, in my late teens, where my church going friends were becoming members of their respective churches. I felt they were doing it as it was the natural progression for them. Everyone else their age in their congregation had become communicants.
    I didn’t – not then, as I didn’t feel it was the right time and in many respects didn’t see the point. I was active. I helped with various organisations and, besides, was going off to uni, so wouldn’t be at church as often.

    A few years later, I realised I wanted to become a member, not to gain a “role” within the church, but to publically profess my faith. I think in many respects you can be a very involved and important member of the community of the church without “full” communicats’ membership. Having said that, how can you become a minister, deacon, reader or elder, very public declarations of faith, of you can’t profess your faith as an ordinary member?

    Just my thoughts and I haven’t had to sit though the lectures!!!

  2. Thank you for your thoughts. It’s always useful to get other perspectives (which is partly why I blog).
    I think that’s the very tension we have to deal with. We can be very active participants without being members, yet the perceived ‘natural’ progression is to move into positions of responsibility (elders, deacons/board, whatever) and that cannot be done without being a member. Obviously it’s not, or shouldn’t be, about gaining a role or position or status although there’s no doubt that some people attempt just that.
    Perhaps we need to be more creative about how we define members. But, by the same token, surely it’s reasonable to expect those who can have a say in the church to have some grounding in the knowledge of what it stands for, how it operates and how it distinguishes itself from the world around it?
    I confess I don’t really ‘get’ the reluctance to join organisations but maybe there’s a more subtle way of encouraging membership. Stewart recently posted a video clip on his blog which considers some of the ‘benefits’ of exclusivity. It’s not strictly aimed at this scenario, but it does raise some pertinent issues. The key is that it requires commitment.

  3. Some interesting and mixed thinking here, I think.
    When a child is baptised, they become a member of the church. This is ‘confirmed’ when they ‘join’ the church later. (I realise that there is a logic burp in all that…joining twice for example)
    It isn’t true that there are no membership classes. They simply may not be called that or reciognised as such. Quite a few of us clergy have opted for enquirer’s classes rather than communicants classes and I don’t make the outcome a necessary joining up procedure. I leave it open ended so that people don’t feel pressurised into joining, although I strongly advocate it if people want a child baptised and they aren’t members (or even baptised) themselves.
    ‘Membership’ when linked with ‘confirmation’ is ‘admission to the sacrament of communion’ and it does involve passing of information to the joinee so that they can make a reasonably informed decision.
    I will grant you that the whole process is messy, but I think it’s the best the church can do without going down the communion token route (which forced my grandparents out of the church).
    I feel that there may be a lot more mileage in this conversation…

  4. “When a child is baptised, they become a member of the church. This is ‘confirmed’ when they ‘join’ the church later.”

    This is one of the key problems – our language trips us up and leads us into illogicality. Why do we need membership classes (regardless of what we call them) if a baptised person is already a member? Do we count baptised infants as members on the roll? If not, why not? As members do we allow full ‘privileges’ – access to communion for instance. If they are not really members until confirmation, is there then a deficiency in baptism (theologically speaking)?
    The tutorial reading we had was looking at the theological implications of ‘confirmation’. It suggested that there needed to be a greater ‘link’ between baptism and confirmation. I was pilloried for suggesting that confirmation ‘completes’ or ‘fulfils’ baptism – the implication being that baptism is somehow incomplete. But that raises the question – what is baptism’s ‘function’? If it is complete in and of itself then what has it to do with membership which can only come to fruition some time later?
    Oh, and if baptised infants are members, then is there an age at which the can be added to the roll, regardless of whether they want to or not? Or is our membership roll really a communicants roll? But that flies in the face of church law which enables all who are baptised to receive communion (and, as has been noted, is all but ignored in the (usual) actual words of the liturgical invitation).

    “I will grant you that the whole process is messy, but I think it’s the best the church can do without going down the communion token route”

    Again, therein lies some of the messiness. Is church membership about participating in communion or, as far as the CofS seems to be concerned, about being able to hold office and participate in the running of the congregational life? Rather than go through classes (which some of my class members were dead against because it implies needing to achieve a ‘standard’ before you can be part of a congregation) should we just keep an eye on how often someone turns up and make them a member once they reach a certain tally?
    That’s probably enough to be going on with otherwise the mileage will be reflected in the length of this post.

  5. I agree that there is great confusion around what we do when we “join the church” in common parlance. At one level, it is no more than to get the ordinances of the church without having to pay the fees (I’m thinking of the crowd who joined with me – all bar me and another girl said they were doing it to get married in the church – it was cheaper than the registrar); others “join” to take Holy Communion; yet others to openly confirm their baptismal vows and so on.
    It becomes confused especially when it is linked to Communion – what about opening the Lord’s Table to all who love the Lord – including children? In my home church and in two of the three churches in my placement children are allowed to partake (and participate), yet have not yet “joined” the church. Also, members of other churches as well as adherents of our own denomination partake as well. Yet in other places, I know, it is very much frowned upon if anyone who has not “joined” partakes. So linking with Holy Communion is confused and confusing.
    As for communicants’ classes – I think this is a hangover from the old days. I went to a series of meetings about what it meant to be a member of the church – our duties and responsibilities – and what the church understood Baptism and Communion meant. There was also a bit about prayer and understanding of the vows we were to say – a bit of a confusion between the sacred and secular! My brother’s course (at a different church in your Presbytery) was more a basic introduction to Christianity. My placement churches run courses similar to the one I did (at one there was also the encouragement to attend Alpha; at another it was Christianity Explored).
    I think the administrative side (ie who can vote and become Board Members etc) has become entangled with membership of the body of Christ which we all belong to at Baptism. It is time this was cleared up! Interesting thoughts, though!

  6. A lot depends on what you think actually happens at baptism. If it is an event in itself then infant baptism has a problem in that the recipient is not aware of what’s going on. Adult baptism allows for the ‘event in itself’ because it is all at the request of the recipient.
    I think that saying confirmation completes the baptism is heading towards saying that the confirmed person is somehow the finished article (which I don’t think you would say)
    The CofS has traditionally stressed the grace aspect of baptism (as an alternative to personal faith declaration) and infant baptism is a good example of this with the obvious helplessness of the child.
    I see baptism as the start of a process of faith that doesn’t end with confirmation and ‘membership’. We never complete the process until we reach ‘heaven’ however you want to describe that. For me, there is nothing particularly magical about a baptism in terms of what actually happens. It is a thanking of God for a new life, but it is also a bringing of the child within the greater family of the church.
    The roll problem has traditionally been answered by a ‘cradle roll’ listing of the baptisee, and the adult is added to the main roll at confirmation.
    As for CB’s comments about communion…. I’m happy with anyone who ‘loves the Lord’ as the prayer book has it taking comunion at almost any age. If the person has some basic understanding of what communion means to them, then by all means let them take it. How you judge that understanding has to be on a case by case basis, bearing in mind that levels of understanding vary considerably (and this can be especially so if there is a mental disability). 
    CB raises a legitimate point about why people ‘join’. For many it is a sompulsory course in order to get married in a church. I’m not sure that people are quite so mercenary (although I have plenty of examples of this).  
    As for ‘illogicality’…. there speaks a systematic theologian. Logic doesn’t really enter into the grace of God does it ??

  7. David,
    You’re right – I would never suggest that baptism and confirmation resulted in the finished article. The completion comes in the sense of fulfilment of the grace shown by God at baptism, the promises of Christian upbringing and nurture and support from the congregation. The person baptised as a child has, in a sense, ‘confirmed’ the ‘expectations’ of that event. However, I have to be honest and say that that was not how the article we read viewed confirmation. Its take was that confirmation was “being confirmed or strengthened [by God]” rather than confirming one’s baptismal promises. Bear in mind that the article was engaging with what it saw as problems with the liturgy of the 1940 edition of Common Order. It’s dated from 1966 so it doesn’t engage with the newer editions.
    I have no particular issues with having this ‘extended’ timeframe of God’s grace starting at baptism, being ‘confirmed’ at confirmation and extending through the rest of a person’s life and, indeed, exhibited regularly at communion. Maybe it’s a hair-splitting exercise only really of interest to systematic theologians and which causes apoplexy in practical theologians who prefer to keep things straightforward 😉
    In many ways I would like to see a ‘separation’ of the administrative and spiritual. Especially as we often invent theological justification for practices and procedures which we feel ought to have them simply because of the nature of the group we are. However, it’s not without its problems. Is tithing administrative or faith-driven? Does choosing the next minister fall to those with faith or a vote? Perhaps what’s needed is a greater honesty about what our expectations are. If people come to an enquirers’ class then it should be just that, with no expectation of joining afterwards. But if people do want to join then I think it should be made, not difficult as such, but certainly ‘selective’. In the meantime, if all they want to do is share in worship and fellowship then that’s quite fine too. Joining the church should never be seen as the ‘done thing’ (and I doubt that it is these days) but nor should it be seen as ‘come one, come all’ open house. Jesus had commitment expectations of those who would follow him. Why should we be any different?

  8. ‘a separation of the administrative and the spiritual…’
    There is the rub I think. Systematic Theologians like things in nice wee boxes, but real life isn’t like that !! (I’m not denigrating ST’s, by the way) It’s like many issue in the church where there is a principled stand made, which is then frequently compromised in reality. For example, gambling. 1930 Gen Ass outlawed it in the Kirk, yet the same Kirk has stock exchange investments….. ethical investment is the PC term for it I believe….
    I’m inclined to leave the waters a bit muddy on this one (until convinced otherwise by ST’s !!

  9. Wow. I got linked to your blog by someone and then the first post I read is all about issues I’ve been dealing with recently. I’m very similar to Mrs Gerbil in many ways. Everyone I speak to seems to have just become a member of their church when they were in their late teens while I didn’t feel a need/desire to do anything at that point. I’ve been incredibly involved in the church – including some positions some may see as controversial for a non-member to do. However, I’ve reached a point in the last six months or so when it seems an important thing for me to do. Making a public commitment of my faith and all the things you agree to and to be involved in when you become a member seem important to me now. I’m actually very glad I haven’t done it sooner (I’m almost 22) because as I said before, it didn’t seem to be that big a deal to all the people I spoke to who had.
    On the subject as a whole, I believe the church is looking into membership and may consider changing it. Certainly a concept which seems to have got muddled as you say but if it is there it is important that people are able to engage with it.

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