Becoming a member of a church is not like signing up for the gym. Joining a faith community is a promise that you will grow as a disciple, even as the community’s help towards that ends often comes of asking you to give of yourself.
This is for me the salient point in the UCC’s new guide to exploring membership “So You are Thinking about Joining the Church.”
Sticking to the metaphor of comparison the UCC’s guide relies on:
…when you want to get in shape– thank goodness— you don’t have to stand up and make promises in front of everyone or to anyone. (Although, from what I hear, weight watchers’ weigh-ins come pretty close!)
Instead, at the gym, you are contracting to receive certain services– the use of the equipment and facilities, access to certain classes, the advice of professionals. And for these benefits, you pay a contractual fee. Plain and simple. …In our capitalist system, there is always something a bit cleaner, clearer about fee for service relationships.
But joining a church is more involved. It’s a covenant. Yes, the church is promising to be a help to you. But you are also making promises to the church and all its members and even the world it serves. There are also more layers of interconnection– sort of an laying down track upon track of mutual care and affection.
Church membership ties us together… not inseparably (it’s still a defined public– as opposed to private and intimate– relationship), but profoundly… in a web (sometimes a knot!) of interrelations. There are more, deeper expectations. There is even added a bit of a “for better or worse” stick-to-it-ness into the equation. Not forever, maybe. But certainly the commitment implies working through some tough spots on the way to everyone’s growth.
Of course, one should expect to experience some benefit– blessing… one’s life should be more abundant for one’s participation in church. But at church, you are not simply on the receiving end of some social contract or contract with God. You are promising more than just to show up and use the facilities.
You are also promising your self. Giving of yourself to God and thereby to other people and new relations. To hold others in love and prayer. To serve in this community as your are able. To support it financially too.
Why? Because somewhere along your life’s journey, somehow, you’ve become convinced that there is more to life than what you can see or touch or possess. You have a sense that Jesus was on to something when he said, ‘the only way to find your life is to lose it.’ I like to paraphrase that, ‘to uncover your real life, spend it, use it, invest it in the service of others.’ Oh, not many of us are ready to go as far as Jesus did. But with the church, we’re saying: ‘we’d like to grow– with help– in that Jesus direction.’
Beloved, each new church member changes all of us. And, we pray, likewise, each of us changes. Thrown in a pot together (hopefully not the pressure cooker of the church!) we grow and change. Not all in the same ways or even at the same rate. But if church isn’t causing us to develop in ways that are better, maybe even unexpected, we should worry that something is wrong…
Adapting how the UCC’s guide to membership concludes, I’d say that church replaces a transactional culture (where even people can be bought and sold) with a culture of sacredness, based on inherent worth where every last one of us is ultimately and irreplaceably precious. …Which, after all, is the only environment in which we can possibly risk the vulnerability of admitting our imperfection, needs, fears and love.
Membership is a promise to do more than show up. But showing up is a good first step! See you in church this week for World Communion Sunday, when we will welcome a crowd of new members…
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