No one was more surprised than I was to find myself in a new member class after less than a year at my local church. Perhaps it was a result of growing up Catholic that the idea of membership held little appeal; the only benefits appeared to be (1) eligibility for church governing committees and (2) getting to vote for leaders of said governing committees. It’s not that I didn’t consider myself a member of the body of Christ. It was that I didn’t get why this membership needed to be made official beyond baptism or confirmation. Worse yet was the thought of transferring membership among any number of congregations over the course of my life like some serial monogamist. What was the function of a class or a covenant or a pledge to make known a membership that seemed to change so very little?
This is the last of five posts in the “Trust Me” series in which I’ve been lifting up the small ways church leaders can make a big difference in building trust with Millennials. By now you’ve probably figured out that these “micro-resolutions” aren’t rocket science. Nor all they all that different from how trust is built with anyone else. It’s as simple and as hard as being real and living real: being real means our church knows who we are, what we’re about, and where we need help seeing ourselves rightly; living real means our church knows who’s in our neighborhood, what they’re going through, and why we need them in order to thrive. In sum, membership in a local church is the process by which we recognize our shared need for one another.
The popularity of a “new member class” is relatively recent in American Protestantism. In an informal survey, Thom Rainer found the percentage of churches requiring such a class had gone from around 17% in 1997 to as many as 86% of those polled in 2013. It used to be that church membership was synonymous with birth. In medieval Europe, for example, only Jews and Turks were considered to be outside the bounds of church participation. Now, it’s often a one-time decision or a five-class commitment. One consulting book I’ve read suggests churches have two tracks for membership; a quick route for those who don’t have a lot of questions and a longer period of discernment for those like me who have an unending appetite for reflection and a community of practice. My favorite model, though, of a “new member class” comes from the Quaker tradition: prospective members request a Clearness Committee in which they gather with a small group of congregants to recount their journey to belonging. The process is often a formal recognition of a reality long felt rather than a test of one’s allegiance.
At my new member class there wasn’t a lot of real talk about who we were, what we were about, or where we needed this church’s help. There was no real talk about how I was worshipping apart from my husband each week and needed someone to sit with on Sunday mornings. No talk about how I was about gender equity and needed someone to talk feminism with after the male-centric sermons. Nothing about how hard it was for me to trust my needs to be met by any church, any one, who wasn’t God. Instead, the senior pastor led us through a study of church history, denominational polity, and how we could plug-in to the various ministries of the church already in motion. At the end of our fourth class, I wasn’t sure I knew enough about who I was committing to to become a member. They certainly didn’t know much about me.
In the last three years, there’s been a lot of ink spilt on whether Millennials still need the church. I’ve read less about why the church still needs me. More importantly, what I really want to know in a new member class is How is that we belong by our longing for each other? After all, it was God’s own longing for us that caused Jesus to pray “that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22).
Membership is about maturing into the fullness of belonging in Christ. Maturity, according to the apostle Paul, is inseparable from unity in the church body (Ephesians 4:12-13.) But unity, the kind of unity that models itself on three persons in one Godhead, does not erase the need for each one of us to be seen uniquely. That’s why if I am to join a church, any church, maybe even your church, I need to believe that you want me to belong, not just another member, not just another Millennial, but Erin Lane, grade-A awkward, introverted, and sensitive human being. And when this me is tempted to walk away, go on ahead, and forge the narrow path by herself, I need you to say the following words with some sense of urgency:
“Stay with us.”
And God help me, I’ll try.
Micro-Resolution #5: Invite me to stay. Not just when I first walk in the door and pick-up a bulletin. Not just when I get the courage to sign my name on the pew pad. Not just when I reach across the aisle to shake hands with strangers. Not just when I show up, expectantly, to your new member class. But when after a year and a half, I decide to leave. Then, too.
I promise to do the same for you.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit www.holyhellions.com.