Rev. Richard Chrisman
November 3, 2019
Abolish Church Membership!
The church was there when I awoke in life. I want to pour everything I have felt for years about the glory of the church and the folly of the church into these next 14 minutes.
I. The folly of the church.
Let’s start with the folly of the church. Ritual and religion come in for heavy artillery in the Bible.
From Israel’s prehistory forward, the Israelites worshiped in tabernacles—tents—and that is our baseline. When King David wanted to build Israel’s first temple, the people balked—they didn’t want it, any more than they wanted a king in the first place. David’s son and successor, Solomon, built the first temple, and it was palatial—the prophets howled. They asserted that Yahweh claimed the Temple for all nations, not just Israel.
Solomon’s temple was destroyed in 587BCE, then rebuilt and destroyed again, the cause being, according to the prophets, Israel’s apostasy—they brought the invasions on themselves. The Hebrew prophets railed against temple corruption due to its powerful place in the economic infrastructure and being intimately involved with dynastic powers. The Temple stood in the way of a face to face relation to God.
Jesus repeated and epitomized this critique when he invoked the prophets in claiming the Temple for all people and not for the profit-seekers that hung around it. He also (in a passage not read here) predicted the destruction of the Temple, after which he would rebuild it in three days, meaning in peoples’ hearts.
St. Paul was at pains to persuade Jews to relax their cultic requirements to make room for Gentiles. His argument was, let Gentiles be Jews from where they are—there is no longer Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.
John of Patmos, in the Book of Revelation, closes his vision with the heavenly city of Jerusalem descending to earth, in which vision there was no place for temples and such—[read passage]. One, two, three, four blows to the solar plexus of organized religion.
Religion has an ambiguous status in the Bible, start to finish. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” and if not, fagedaboutit!
Christian history is similarly ambiguous—for 400 years, early Christianity worshiped in homes and makeshift public spaces, former synagogues, while under persecution from the Roman empire. But following the conversion of Constantine in 312 CE, Christianity became the state religion and out of the ground jumped the first cathedral in 587 CE, the Hagia Sophia, still today the largest in history (now a mosque).
Henceforward, Christianity in all its permutations, adopted the forms of society which Christianity was born to oppose (H.Richard Niebuhr). Belonging to a church, far from branding you as counter-cultural, confers upon members social status (invitations); credential (resume); affirmation (personal acceptability).
Today, denominational Christianity in each of its myriad splintered forms, including ours, reflects the economic and racial divisions of its parent society, none, almost, none fulfilling the vision of being places of prayer for all nations.
II. From folly to glory.
Much as we do want to be a place of prayer for all peoples, and we mean it—given the centrifugal forces controlling churches just described, is the diversity we seek attainable? Yes, I believe it is.
But many things are working against us that we can address: for one thing, there is a filter over the entrance doors of our churches, and it is the fact of being a “membership” institution. The word and concept of membership is toxic, inimical to the inclusive spirit of being “a house of prayer for all peoples.” If you know anything about churches, it is that you join to belong—until you join, you are in a sort of limbo and feel like it.
Church does not feel like a public place—feels more like being a guest at somebody else’s family Thanksgiving dinner—what follows public worship is a social hour where people stand around in tight knots of two or three or more. From the outside, the typical church experience communicates a we/they distinction; the same perception is operative from the inside.
Much as churches try to develop welcoming skills (the UCC goal is “extravagant welcome”), friendliness and follow-up cards to visitors is not enough (see?—the word visitor connotes an outsider).
The membership idea is also toxic because fewer and fewer people today are looking for something to join. Robert Wuthnow famously documented this reality in his book, “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, where he argues Americans today let communities and institutions for the most part sink or swim while people go about meeting their needs at smaller scale affiliations on a more temporary basis in a time when people just don’t know how long they’ll live in one place.
Going through the process of meeting requirements like baptism (or proof of baptism) and creedal assent (in our case, our creed is that we require no creed) seems mystifying and onerous to the uninitiated.
Anyway, the idea of membership smacks too much of uniformity and unity where people are of a single mind—it is certainly so in some denominations (Southern Baptists require you to believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible).
So let’s abolish church membership—that’s my modest proposal! Let’s trash the we/they dichotomy that deters people from entering churches.
But how can we possibly do that? Protestant churches face a dilemma because, being voluntary associations, we rely on what we call membership for self-governance and financial support. Membership is the step required for participation in the institution’s self-governance (voting, serving in office), and many rights and responsibilities of membership are indispensable to a democratic polity in a denomination like ours.
If we weren’t to call ourselves members any more, what should we be called? The fact is that members function like stakeholders, that is, they are people who feel a responsibility and take actual responsibility for the health and direction of the chalice that carries the wine—the membership of a congregational church are its trustees, really (viz., Congregational Meeting today).
If we can’t change the polity, maybe we still have to call you members—but we might be able to change the psychology by regarding everybody inclusively as “saints,” “participants.”
III. The glory of the church.
So let’s at least change our thinking and our behaviors, if we want to realize the vision of providing a place of prayer for all peoples, the vision wherein the City engulfs the Temple. Let’s toss out the measuring stick that calculates membership numbers. Let’s think instead about the many kinds and the different qualities of participation:
How many participants participating how often? What and how many opportunities for participation? What new opportunities for participation are there each month? What is quality of participation (hurried, hasty, grudging, dutiful)? Does participation nourish and sustain people for life’s demands? Is participation in congregational self-governance accessible (where is the flow-chart that paints a picture of our process)?
In John’s vision, there are twelve gates to the City of God—how many gates (doors, avenues of entry) does Eliot Church have? Do we have enough open doors that diverse participants can come through to sit together under this one roof? We have more than people think, but they are not known as such.
I can name 7 of them for you that maybe you yourselves didn’t know existed—let’s call them doors to be consistent with our architecture--
1) Devotion; 2) Ritual; 3) Reasoned inquiry; 4) Justice; 5) Personal transformation; 6) Mystical experience; 7) Artistic experience. . . I could go on.
Here’s the outlook to maintain going forward:
A—Keep these doors open in your mind.
B—Keep the peoples who aren’t here always in mind.
C—Look at every event and decision from a public point of view.
Here’s every Sunday’s goal—a church should be a place where hope is reawakened, regardless of who is participating. The great symbol of hope that the church has to offer all nations is Holy Communion—a meal not for the elect but for the un-elected! Holy Communion is the one, great evangelical act of the church, open to all peoples within earshot of Jesus’ voice and open to Christ’s spirit.
Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.
--Rev. Richard Chrisman, 11/3/2019