Reflections on Church Membership — German & American Perspectives

Reflections on Church Membership — German & American Perspectives

The next new members’ class will take place after worship on Sunday, Sept. 15. The class is for those who are ready to join. And those who are interested in learning more about Old First or their faith or our tradition.

People who take the class and decide to become members of Old First will be welcomed in worship October 6, World Communion Sunday.

At a place like Old First, most everyone is welcome to do almost everything we do around here, whether they have joined the church or not. Ok, you cannot be elected to an office — say as an Elder or Standing Group Leader.

But you can join a standing leadership group and all of our fellowship opportunities.
You can serve as a lector and liturgist and usher.
You can join a hospitality team.
We have had non-members serve communion, and it goes without saying there that everyone is welcome to receive the bread and the cup in our church.
You can have your child baptized and you can be married or buried here.

“What Difference Does Membership Make?” is a real and frequent question.

Michael, in his time in Germany, got some insight to this. You see, the German church system is very different from ours. And some of the difference results, he believes, from the degree to which church is a conscious and recurrent decision people make.

Michael left with a feeling that the American system occasions our church folks with more questions about whether and how to participate in church life. It’s not that American Christians have a particularly higher commitment to their faith. Instead, it’s that they have to make an on-going series of decisions about their commitments. And it’s Michael’s opinion that those occasions are helpful for people’s sense of belonging and commitment and spiritual growth.

In Germany, one joins the church simply by choosing to pay one’s church tax via one’s income tax. People agree to pay the pre-determinded rate (7 to 9% of their annual tax burden) as their support of the church. It turns out, in a comparison to American giving to church, a generous gift.

But after checking that box on the tax form, there’s not much thought about it as an on-going commitment one has to complete or in any other way be particularly conscious of. In fact, one German explained, “Like most things related to taxes, it’s just a burden you’d rather not think about.”

On the same form, your tax return, is how a German indicates his or her faith. When one decides to pay the church tax, one has to specify if one is Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. In fact, most people make such a decision when they begin their working lives and paying taxes. And thereafter, it’s sort of automatic.

And even as more people are opting out of paying the church tax, most Germans still do check that box (about 80% of the Protestant population of the nation is paying the church tax). Many more are therefore members of local parishes than are active in them. There comes of all this an odd way (from an American’s perspective!) in which being a Christian in that system involves less decision-making and involvement. It is for many people more of a custom.

Michael also has this theory that since individualism is greater in American culture, we live together expecting no more than that people will make myriad, different personal commitments. In fact, one could say, whatever social compact is left in America is no more than the patchwork of all those various individual commitments. In Germany, there’s still more of a sense that there could be a common overarching duty (like supporting the church)! But Michael suspects, despite more faith in a common duty, individual Germans’ definition of what “one’s duty” might be is as diverse as Americans’ various individual commitments.

For Germans today, this often means that outside of the four liturgical highpoints in an individual’s lifespan (baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial), they can be Christians without making any decisions or be involved at all. That’s not unlike Americans who identify as Christians without feeling they need any church membership. Except that the Germans who say they are Christians… in their system, they are at least offering some financial support to the church and its ministry!

Michael also wondered if that left many Germans more like the Americans who report to surveys that they actively go to church, when in fact they do not (estimated to be about half of the 40% of those who report to being active in church).

Being part of the church is generally thought to be a positive attribute by at least some people (Germans who pay their church tax; Americans who say they are Christians), but not enough to get them out of bed and in worship on Sunday morning.

In the American system, there’s actually less “social pressure” to be in any formal way associated with the church. As well, in order to relate to the church, in America, one usually has to make more choices.

First, one has to decide from the myriad of Christian and/or other spiritual options available. At this point in U.S. history, there’s little denominational loyalty left: rather than staying where they grew up, people migrate to where they are comfortable. So, first, we have to determine with community or communion and congregation suits us and our understandings best.

And then we are presented with the question of how much we will dedicate towards supporting the church and its ministry. (Remember, for Germans, there’s no choice– everyone who “signs up,” has to give the determined percentage of their overall yearly tax bill.)

Surely, for us in the American system, we are called again and again to consider what our faith, or at least church membership means to us. For instance, each year, during the decisions we make in the congregation’s stewardship campaign.

But it also happens each week as we take up the collection. And because of all this, the church regularly speaks also about our being thankful for all that God has given us as well as for the offerings of time and talent we can make.

In many other ways, our church life presents people with more choices. And our congregations and denominational families have to be more entrepreneurial because they cannot count on 1) the state’s involvement in collecting their funding and 2) a stronger social commitment to funding a church one’s not involved in.

Which is all to say, Michael believes, from this comparison, that the decisions that North American Christians are faced with actually provide us with more opportunities to keep our faith and congregations alive, active and responsive to our lives and our on-going reflections on God in our experience and world.

So, why join the church? Because it will present you with a series of other decisions. Ones you will be free to make as your conscience, faith and understanding lead. No one decides anything for you in our system. (We are much too individualistic a culture and freedom of conscience a denominational tradition for that to work!) But these decisions… in considering them, they lend themselves to a growing, vital faith and dynamic, responsive congregations…

If you have any questions — about the new members’ process, Old First, or his experiences in Germany, please ask Michael!

And we hope to see a good and diverse group after worship on Sept. 15. Lunch will be served as we spend a couple of hours considering our faith and why it’s important to us and how the church can add to it and our lives…