Membership Matters. Right?

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A recent CNN report by Eric Marrapodi noted that "shortly before announcing her White House bid" on June 27, Rep. Michele Bachmann "officially quit a church she'd belonged to for years." The religious affiliation and involvement of politicians has long been of interest to most American voters, but what caught our attention in this piece was the enormous amount of ink Mr. Marrapodi spilled in detailing church membership.

It's no secret that the American church is in decline. Statistics have belied this truth in the mainline denominations for many years. But the decline has recently been catching up to conservative denominations and non-denominational wings of Christianity as well. Now, as David Olson has noted, "the vast majority of Americans are absent from church" (The American Church in Crisis).

Because of this decline in church attendance, church membership, to an increasing number of Americans, must seem strange, antiquated, or at the very least, quaint. Mr. Marrapodi had to explain church membership in detail, as if he were describing Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, because most people have no idea what it is. But it's not only outsiders who are clueless about church membership; many insiders are as well. We've entered a post-membership era.

When I (Kyle) was in seminary, Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church had just burst onto the scene. Seminarians and pastors were intrigued by the high bar he set for church membership. "Nothing good comes easy," we're often told. Yet, church had seemed to be an exception to that rule. Warren gave permission to make church mean something for those who longed to belong.

Some years later, Robert Webber, in his book The Younger Evangelicals, pointed out that many younger evangelicals—a precursor to the emerging church—were dissatisfied with the "pragmatic," seeker-sensitive, mega-church model of their parents' generation. Under the pragmatic model, the congregation expected to be passive observers of the Sunday morning worship performance. While the professionals did their thing on stage, people were by and large content to watch, listen, learn, and sing. Younger evangelicals, however, wanted to participate and to produce. They wanted to know that their presence, or lack thereof, made a real difference to the life of the community. They wanted to know that the church valued not only teachers, preachers, and musicians, but artists, poets, accountants, and engineers as well. More broadly, they wanted to know that the church valued their distinctive contributions.

Yet increased participation does not always work itself out in positive ways. Too often, valuing church membership can turn pastors into politicians whose primary job is to keep its members happy. It can also minimize the ability of the church to hear the increasing volume of the voices swelling outside its doors. Yes, "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil 3:20), but that doesn't mean that the purpose of the church is to make church more "heavenly" for its members. Rather, it means that the church is to go into the world as an anticipation of heaven coming to earth (Rev 21:1-2). Sometimes the desire to participate in the church is driven by this motivation. Other times, however, it simply reflects yet another power-grab.

At the same time, many have noticed a celebrity leadership culture within Protestant evangelicalism. In some prominent recent cases, pastors have publicly repented of issues of pride and abuse of power. In one of those cases, it appears that present and former congregants made use of social technology to call attention to problems of leadership. Especially for leaders, power is a temptation and, left unchecked, can be difficult to overcome.

The church plays a vital role in God's plan for the redemption of the world. The church is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God, but it is a crucial—though imperfect—medium through which God is making reconciliation known to the world. The church proclaims through its inner life and its external witness the Gospel of both horizontal and vertical salvation and fullness of life. As such, the official leaders (pastors, staff, elders) of the church and its members need one another in order to stay accountable to that mission. They remind each other by their actions and their words that the church does not exist for itself, but for the sake of the world as witnesses to God's presence.