A Low Bar, But High Stakes
Imagine that you’re someone who has recently started coming to Chapel Hill, but you haven’t become a member yet. Imagine, in some alternate reality, that when you came to church you couldn’t sit with the rest of the congregation, but instead you had to sit in a section apart from the congregation that were members. Imagine, further, that when it came time to take communion you were asked to leave because only members would receive communion. And if you wanted to take communion, you had to go through three years of intense spiritual mentoring, classes, and prolonged periods of prayer and fasting that ended with being baptized… naked. Are you a little appalled by this? Maybe a lot of appalled? Surprisingly I did not create this scenario out of my imagination, but out of the practices of the first 250 years of the Church’s history.
Recently Megan and I were gifted with some time to go to a conference for pastors and church leaders at Whitworth University called the Whitworth Institute of Ministry. We both came back refreshed and inspired from our time there. One of the seminars that I attended was taught by Professor Jerry Sittser, who teaches church history. He reminded us of some of the stringent membership requirements of the early church, requirements that paradoxically led to the explosive growth of that church in an incredibly hostile environment. Certainly, how we practice community has changed dramatically over the course of the last two millennia, but Dr. Sittser argued that there was much to learn from our forefathers in the faith.
We come upon another opportunity to invite folks into our own membership process this Sunday (and Thursday), but compared to 1,800 or so years ago, the bar has been dramatically lowered. All that’s asked is that folks attend a class, meet with a pastor, and say vows in front of the church community (and be baptized, if they have not been already). We even don’t make you get baptized naked, and this month we’re even doing baptisms downtown in the harbor. You might actually enjoy the membership process!
But for all that’s changed in 1,800 years, one thing remains the same: the stakes are high. Membership is still about declaring yourself part of the family of God (and the family of God declaring that with you). Membership isn’t just checking off a box, it isn’t just a way to learn something about the church or getting connected (though it is that, too), it’s about saying to the world, “I’m committed to Jesus and his family, and I’m asking this community of believers to hold me accountable to that.” And we should recognize that this kind of declaration always comes with a cost, if we really understand what it means. In our part of the world, it means living in a way that is different from the culture around us, subversively and creatively pursuing the ethics and lifestyle of Jesus as a community set apart. In other parts of the world, membership may cost you your life, as it often did for those in the early church. Either way, the stakes are indeed high.
Granted, you can still come to Chapel Hill and be a committed attender, committed LifeGroup member, even be committed in service in some way, without ever becoming a member. But you will be doing all of that as an individual. Will you join us in the mission to work together with us to present everyone mature in Christ? Membership marks your commitment to our community of believers as a co-follower of Jesus. Would you be bold enough to submit yourself to the process of membership to declare that you want to go deeper with this particular expression of God’s family?