This Sunday, as well as joining in communion with Jesus and the rest of the Christian world… we will welcome eight new members into our midst. Do you know Carrie, Clark, Collin and Maranda, Ellie and Mark, Kathy, and Priscilla?
Their joining has occasioned my talking more than usual recently about what church membership entails. It’s a question people often ask. Because Old First, intending to be a church engendered and powered by God’s love and grace, is more about openness — “giving it away for free” — than earned privileges, barrier walls, secret handshakes or restricted groups.
It’s not an accident that what members and non-members can do at our church is almost identical. (Technically, the difference is limited to holding the few elected offices and voting in congregational meetings.)
Most of the work of our church is handled not by any elite crew, but by anyone who shows up. (See Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet.) Our standard for serving is “giving of oneself’ — the willingness to get involved and follow-through. In fact, it happens regularly that if people are present and participating in the community, everyone assumes they are members and is surprised to learn they are not.
We want people to feel freely welcomed. Actually, we hope for more than that– that people experience a godly invitation and encouragement to participate. We’re trying to take away the barriers that keep people away from church — anything that prevents them from feeling connected, capable, called, loved…
So what difference does joining really make? Here’s a thought that came to me AFTER my latest attempt to explain this to a prospective member. (Yes, one of those, “why didn’t I think of this?” light bulbs two hours too late.)
Membership in our world is most often about what one wants to receive. One joins “Sam’s Club,” “AAA” or the ‘YMCA” to get certain admission, services or privileges. But God’s economy is very different: it’s about what’s unearned, even undeserved: the gift of grace. Church membership cannot, therefore, be well understood using the consumerist analogies offered by our market-economy society.
One does of course get something from membership in the church. That’s part of the reason one has to stand up in worship, in front of everyone, to join. Because new members are getting a promise from the congregation, the people who have already joined the church. Their friendship and prayers, shared labor and hopes that we all will continue to grow together… It’s hard to really promise to be there for someone if you can’t identify them!
Of course, you’ve already realized, our offer to welcome, work and sojourn together is meant to greet people long before they become members. Like the Father running out to the returning son he can just barely see coming over the horizon, we hope our embrace meets people at the door the first time they walk in. Or even at the website as they check us out from a distance. It’s our calling and our promise as a Christian faith community to accept people where they are and to show them respect and love for how they are. It’s also as one of the ways we help them on to how and where God wants them to become.
Well, then, what’s membership about? Try this: join the church not for what you can receive, but because you are ready to give. (That sounds like one of those lines of invitation to communion: “come, not because you must, but because you may!”)
Joining the church is like you are raising your hand and your voice to get everyone — in the midst of all the chaotic cacophony of community — to pay attention:
“I’m ready to do more than show up here to see what I can get.”
It’s your vow really: “I’M IN!” …Implied in that is a “for better or worse.”
You are saying to yourself, and others and God, “I’m ready… to give this community my commitment. My love. And prayers. To roll up my sleeves to volunteer to serve and work. And, yes, I’ll invest some money in this mission too.”
Why would anyone do that when the world is always teaching us to grab what’s ours and watch our backs? Because somewhere along your way — and hopefully also right in the middle of our worship services and meetings (imagine that?) — you have learned that life is more than what we can put our hands on; more that what we acquire or possess. Abundant living comes from what we can share; what we give away.
I hope you also come to see that Old First will be different because you joined us. You make the difference. We grow and change together. And individually too. Because, finally, that’s what church is really about.
Welcome, friends. And see you in church,