Our question this week, is in a way linked to last week’s question. Last week we talked a about why come to church? There are other options and things to do on Sunday morning that don’t involve going to church. People said everything from we go so that we know we aren’t the centre of everything, to needing it to get through the week, to finding joy in the people, the music, the service and for some it is the feeling of home. This week the question is, what does it mean to be a member of a church in today’s?
Confession. Until this question, I didn’t really spend much time thinking about the meaning of membership. It gave a chance to think of my own journey. I first became a member of the United Church when I was 13 or 14. I remember meeting with our minster Rev. Ted McCleod. I remember his asking us thoughtful questions and I remember celebrating becoming part of the church. The church that my parents of and the one that their parents before them belonged to. My mother loves telling me about her Presbyterian grandfather who not become a member of the United Church after Union in 1925. I’ve visited people here who tell me that they are Methodists and not United Church. As clergy, I am no longer a member of a congregation, but a member of a region. Over the years I’ve talked to people who want to be members and others who are deeply committed to their church don’t believe that the church is a club that requires membership.
Our relationship with church membership has its roots in our beliefs about God and is also affected by the generation we were born into. Generationally speaking there is a different sense of denominational loyalty. Generations ahead of mine, chose one denomination and that’s what they were. There is a shift in the millennial generation. This generation Whereas my generation and the ones that follow mine, are less concerned with denominational loyalty and more concerned about the feeling of the local church community. The same is true when it comes to brand loyalty. Previous generations there was a high level of brand loyalty whether it was to car or to the company that you worked for. (http://discipleshipresearch.com/2017/03/millennials-dont-do-denomination/)
I don’t usually bring up The Manual in sermons but there is a first time for everything! In the United Church we have a designation of full membership – you belong to a specific congregation as well as a denomination. We have what is called full members this happens through confirmation (reaffirmation of baptismal faith) or adult baptism and profession of faith. (The Manual) We can transfer that membership between congregation. We have another group called adherents. They are people who attend worship and contribute regularly to the life of the congregation. In our daily worship together, we don’t often make a distinction between members and adherents. At our Congregational meetings those in full membership can make a motion allowing everyone to vote on all matters related to the life of the congregation.
In the past number of years the United Church has done several studies on membership. Some people want stronger regulations for membership and others like me want looser definitions of membership. I am on the side of wanting everyone who shows up, shows an interest and wants to be involved being considered members. This was shaped by my first congregations. Many of the most involved people in the life of several points were not in full membership. They were there every Sunday to turn on the lights and fix what needed being fixed or organize church functions. It didn’t seem to be that the polity of the church was in keeping with the practical day to day functioning of that congregation. I’m guessing that there are many other churches like this as well. It also likely that this is why the most recent survey on membership wasn’t conclusive – there was an almost 50/50 split on how to define membership.
So what does it mean to be a member of a church? Why be would you be a member? I think we need to move past polity and into how it shapes our faith. Years ago, I heard ago I heard a beautiful story about a man whose loved one passed away. I can’t remember if it was his mother or father or someone very close to him. All his life he’d attended church, singing hymns and praying/saying the creeds. On the day of his loved one’s funeral he came to church, it came time for the first hymn and he couldn’t sing. The words got stuck in his throat. Reflecting on this experience later, he shared that he was thankful that there was a congregation behind him who could sing the words of faith when he couldn’t. Someone else was believing and singing for him when he couldn’t.
Together we are stronger because when I don’t have the words of faith and doubt or sorrow creeps in, you will believe for me. I will do the same for you in your time of need. The community of believers brings meaning to membership. There is something spiritual that happens to us when we sit together, sing together, pray together, and eat together from one week to the next. It reminds me of that great quote from Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1)
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we have Paul’s reminder that we are all members of the body of Christ and each one of us brings our own unique gifts and every gift is important. The thing I appreciate about Paul’s letters is that he writes when there is trouble in the community and the community at Corinth was arguing about whose spiritual gifts were the best!! It happened then and it happens now. Paul says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27 – 31) That still more excellent way is the way of love that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13.
Membership in a church community gives a place to live out our faith, to work with one another and work things out when we do not agree. Membership in a community gives a place to express our doubts and explore our faith. It reminds us that we are not alone grown, learn, question and doubt. It gives us brothers and sisters in faith who will believe and sing for us when we cannot find the words of faith for ourselves. Membership is a way of supporting each other and hold each other accountable for a living faith.
In our gospel reading, Jesus invites the first disciples to drop their nets and follow. Membership in a church community is one way we live out our invitation to discipleship. It is not the only way. As members of the body of Christ, we follow in Jesus way of contemplation and action. Jesus often took time to pray and he also took time to make everyone feel welcome. Following in the way of Jesus is not easy. We need to the time to worship, sing, pray, and learn so that we can go out care for others, our community and our world. Belonging to a gathered, worshipping community helps to live into Jesus’ final commission.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ departing words to us were, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18 – 20) Let us go from this place to be the body of Christ in the world. Amen.