The Or-Else Church, part 3

So it’s been two days since I began my think-piece of gathering an “instant” church. And now a dose of heresy. Why do churches need membership?

In our own history, the parish or society had members based on financial sponsorship, and for a good swath of the history that meant pew rental or ownership. (It’s very easy to have a creedless system on that basis, even though the putative creedlessness of Universalism is grossly overstated. More about that later.) Both the Universalists and Unitarians were slow and often neglectful to nurture the core of the professed believers — the church proper, as opposed to the parish or society — and thus it’s easy to characterize the apparently secular mode of church government we enjoy. (This is most evident where there is a church that goes with a parish or society, or where they were at one point fused. Look for deacons as an institution. And as far as I can tell, the presence of the church proper, with a liturgy, are the best indicators of whether an older congregation stayed Christian.)

That said, I’m inspired — at least provisionally — by the distinction in membership made my the Uniting Church in Australia, which in its new (October 2009, pending approval; PDF) regulations distinguish between adherents and members. (The UCA distinction between baptized, confirmed and members-in-associationmay be less helpful in this context.)

1.1.22 In addition to a roll of members, a roll of persons who, though not members or members-in-
association, regularly attend the services of worship and share in the life of the Church shall
be kept. Such persons shall be known as adherents of the Church.
1.1.23 (a)    Adherents may attend and speak at meetings of the Congregation but shall not have
the right to vote.
(b)    Adherents may be appointed as members of committees of the Congregation.
1.1.24 In the event of an adherent moving beyond the bounds of a Congregation, the secretary of
the Church Council shall forward an appropriate letter informing the secretary of the Church
Council related to the new Congregation of the change.

Not a radical thought — many congregations have more or less formal “friends” — but the enrollment of adherents can be a useful social tool. First, “membership” has less of a hold on people than in generations past, and membership-oriented participation will surely discourage otherwise included people. Second, for membership-minded persons, it provides a manageable step towards membership without over-committing and without the risk of letting a person’s interest wither for trying to get the timing right.

Thinking both about historic Universalist polity of fellowship (though previously applied only to ministers and whole congregations) and Free and Open Source communities’ concepts of membership, I think this new church ought to have a fellowship committee, and that the membership it extends should

  • be limited to a term, and then subject to renewal, thus addressing the phantom member problem.
  • be based on a recognition of the support of the particular congregation — and thus a reason to extend policy-making power through a vote —  and not an endorsement of a particular spiritual state, which exists independently of church membership.
  • be extended on a basis of a “portfolio” of commonly-known community standards, including expressions of spiritual maturity and theological self-understanding, commitment of an appropriate level of financial support, a track record of participation and statement — I’d say “study plan” but that seems too academic — of faith goals the membership candidate wants to achieve under care of the church.

This means membership will be less common, but — I hope — more valuable, and should spare the new church from dilettantes with voting rights.

3 Replies to “The Or-Else Church, part 3”

  1. I am also interested in figuring out the dilettantes with voting rights. I wonder how hard the tomatoes would sting if I suggested renewable membership to my congregation. It couldn’t be too bad, could it? They seem to be a bit change adverse.

  2. Scott, I love this! I do know of a couple of UU churches for whom submitting an annual financial commitment constitutes renewal of membership. There are obvious practical reasons for that. But I love the notion of real religious commitment being expressed in true membership — then the challenge is getting people to show up for the offerings that will equip them to make such a commitment.

  3. Well, I made a covenant when I joined my Church. I’m in a Covenant and that seems a good deal more than being a member, friend, or adherent; although I did witness a release from Covenant a couple of weekends ago. So Covenants can come and go too.

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