The 1980s have returned in full force in modern US culture. The Netflix series Stranger Things is a smash it and the latest installment of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok was heavily laden with 80’s inspired synth music.
And the “Members Only” jacket is back in all its distinguishing glory.
"When you put it on...something happens."
Best. Tagline. Ever. (And certainly the most obvious, i.e. "I started my new Honda this morning and...something happened." Cheers to the Don Draper who came up with this)
The appeal of a marketed "members only" brand, however, was ingenious. Whether in the 1980s or in 2018, a symbol which indicates "who's in and who's out" will always draw a crowd. I'm looking at you Apple, with your silly animal emojis...And while perhaps not as popular today, but certainly in the 80s, the iconic high school letter jacket. If there ever was a adolescent piece of clothing that perpetuated a distinct class system this was it.
Besides clothing, membership distinction is seen all throughout society. Think of "members dues" for social clubs. Establishments ranging from pretentious country clubs to even more pretentious dive bars require some sort of membership. Many moons ago, I had a key to the Rhino Club in Greensboro. You paid a fee and received a key to the place (I thought it was cool...I kinda still do). Again, great marketing strategy. Even Greek Life on America's college campuses requires yearly dues.
The talk of membership made its way into a conversation I was having with my students one Sunday morning. What does it take to be a church member? Before we even got going, I threw out a better question; have you ever seen anyone denied membership? I laid out the needed scenario. An individual who has been attending a church for several weeks walks the aisle during the invitation/altar call. They whisper something in the pastor's ear and, when the music ends, the pastor states that the individual wants to join the church. The congregation is then asked to solidify this acknowledgment by saying "Amen." Then comes the awkward moment when the pastor asks if there is anyone who would oppose the request. Silence. Always. Everyone claps and the new member is directed toward the doors of the church where they will be greeted with the "right hand of fellowship" by the entire congregation. Familiar story, right (at least for Baptist and other congregational churches)?
But what if that didn't happen? What if someone opposed someone else's membership?
If you didn't know, not long ago that was a common practice. To try and whittle down a large subject into a blog-sized post is daunting, and I admit there are more details then I'm touching on here. To get your questioning juices flowing, I'll leave you with this idea: Protestants needed something to replace Catholic Holy Mass & Communion (you know you are saved/belong because you take in the body and blood of Christ). The replacement had to be as rich and personal as communion, and thus became the significance of conversion. Conversion focused on the individual experience and testimony. So a few generations ago a person would come before a congregation asking to join in their fellowship. They were then asked to recount their conversion/salvation experience. If leadership saw their account to be authentic they allowed a "watch care" to take place which was covenant agreement between the person and the local church. I'll simplify this as "accountability" for both parties. After a certain amount a time, the person was allowed to become a full member of the congregation.
Now let me be clear, there is a distinction between being in the "body of Christ" vs. being a member of a local congregation/institution. Those who confess Christ is Lord are entitled to count themselves as part of the larger body of believers, however church membership deals with different requirements. First, let me tell you what it DOESN'T mean; the church keeps an eye on someone and judges every action taken in order to punish and shame. The church should not look for self-righteous works or people. INSTEAD, I see membership as another form of confession. When you join a local church you are aligning your beliefs, ideas, and causes with a collective body (everything doesn't always have to be exactly the same, but a common identity should be strived for). By becoming a member of a local church a person should feel confident in saying, “Yes, I'm on board with the vision and ministries of this church." If not, perhaps after visiting a church for several weeks and getting to know leadership, they should move on to a church where they feel their identity is more in sync. However, this often proves difficult...because if I (and maybe "we") am/are honest, churches have been notorious for not being sure what they stood for or what their purpose was. How can a church offer membership when it doesn’t know who it is?
For me, I think this raises more questions than answers. Being in seminary, I’m surrounded by a diverse body of believers (and non-believers). This space is one of inclusion, and please hear me, said space is desperately needed. And yet, is there room for discussion around exclusivity in church membership? The historical Church has never had a problem in naming heretics, establishing creeds, and orthodoxy to make the case for encompassing foundational beliefs. The Church has been handing out its own “Members Only” jackets for two millennium. If this is seen on a large scale, why hasn’t the local church been straightforward with what’s required for membership? Is leadership afraid to draw a line in the sand out of fear of alienating groups in their congregation resulting in vacant pews, or like Rob Bell, afraid of being labeled a heretic (side note: keep it up Rob, I still dig your stuff)? And yes, I understand viewing a church's website to see where they stand on some issues is helpful; such as their understanding of scripture and whether or not they affirm women and LGBTQ persons in ministry. My push back is while leadership and staff might understand the magnitude of these statements, does the rest of the congregation? To me it all boils down to this; what does it mean to be part of your church? How you answer this question is where you’ll find your membership requirement.
I didn’t come here to solve this problem. It’s much too big for one person. My hope is to raise awareness that better conversation around membership in our churches is needed. This starts with proclamation of what your local church is about. And while being a “physical representation of Christ on earth” looks nice on a coffee mug, we must be clearer about what that looks like in manifestation to our church bodies.