Photograph by Skull Kat via Unsplash

Is membership everything or nothing at all?

July 3, 2024

I blame acid-wash mom jeans, oversized blazers, and flashy neon fanny packs. I blame catchy new synth-heavy music. I blame movies like It Follows and Turbo Kid. And I unequivocally blame Netflix’s Stranger Things.

All are at fault for the return of the 1980s to modern US culture.

Not that I’d mind, mind you. My memories of said time are filled with Saturday morning cartoons dialed in by hands searching for analog technology, sugary type 2 diabetes-inducing cereals, and Friday nights at the roller rink where a few friends and I tried our best to emulate the “flying V” from Disney’s The Mighty Ducks franchise. We spent the 1980s running around neighborhoods with Super Soakers tucked under our arms, drinking those first July heat-infused sips of water from a garden hose, and in 1989, desperately begging our parents for Reebok Pumps and a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas.

This was one child’s view of the decade of decadence.

Simultaneously, this time was defined by the goring Bull of Wall Street, horns representing materialism and consumerism. The fictional Gordon Gekko was the financial king.

For years, my parents bemoaned the specter of trickle-down economics. Clearly, not all was shining and bright. Not when average mortgage rates during the decade rested in the double digits, and spiked at 18.63%. My childhood home was built in 1994 for good reason. The 1980s, much like today, was a time when you either had it or you didn’t.

So, is it any surprise that this decade of accumulation produced such superfluous status symbols as the “Members Only” jacket, which, like bodysuits, has returned in all its distinguishing glory?

A “Members Only” jacket is an ingenious piece of outerwear. A windbreaker indicating “who’s in and who’s out” with clear distinction. What one is actually part of is up for debate, but rest assured, you don’t want to miss out and be left out of whatever it is.

Membership distinction is seen and sought throughout our society. There are “members’ dues” for social clubs. Membership requirements for establishments ranging from pretentious country clubs to bulk-buying barns like Costco and Sam’s Club. Even seedy dive bars. I still remember my membership to the Rhino Club in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. You paid a nominal fee and received a personal key to the place (I loved the concept, and I still kind of do). Even Greek Life on America’s college campuses requires yearly member dues.

And, of course, churches have memberships too.

This very topic arose during a conversation I had recently. In the company of several regular Sunday morning attendees, I asked them what it takes to be a church member these days. I would have received a more harmonious agreement in asking children what God looks like.

While this question floated on the placid surface of my company, I took the opportunity to pose a more intriguing question: have you ever witnessed someone being denied membership? I painted a scenario.

After attending a church for several weeks, an individual walks the aisle during an invitation/altar call. They whisper something in the pastor’s ear. When the music ends, the pastor announces the individual’s wish to join the church. The congregation is then asked to affirm this by saying, “Amen.” Then comes the awkward moment when the pastor asks if anyone would oppose the request. Silence. Always. Everyone claps, and the new member is guided towards the church’s doors, where they are welcomed with the “right hand of fellowship” by the entire congregation.

It’s a familiar scene, isn’t it? Especially in Baptist circles.

But what if that didn’t happen? What if someone opposed someone else’s membership? Believe it or not, this happened not long ago. But first, let’s step back a bit.

Ideally, coercion-free membership should be a way to align one’s beliefs, ideas, and causes with a collective body. At its best, becoming a congregant of a local church, one should feel confident in saying, “Yes, I’m on board with the vision and ministries of this church.”

Since the Reformation, Protestants have strived to produce something on par with Catholicism, Holy Mass, and Communion. There, through the administration of the sacraments, people know they belong to the body of Christ and to the church because they physically take in the body and blood of Christ through the mystery of transubstantiation. The Reformers’ replacement needed to be as rich and personal as Communion, so conversion became significant as it determined how an individual was allowed into a faith community.

Conversion focuses on individual experience and testimony. A person goes before a congregation, asking to join in their fellowship. They are asked to recount their conversion experience. If leadership sees their account as authentic, they’d enter “watch-care” status. Think of it like leasing a Honda Civic; both parties want to ensure this is what they want and put a few miles on the tires. After a certain amount of time, the person is given full admittance to become a congregation member.

Before we move forward, let us make this distinction: being part of the “body of Christ” and being a member of a religious institution are different.

Those who confess to following the lowly Galilean are entitled to count themselves as part of the larger body of believers. However, church membership can require a whole different can of worms, but first, I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean.

The institutional church should not act as an all-seeing eye judging every action taken to punish and shame. The institutional church should not look for the self-righteous works of its people. Instead, coercion-free membership should be a way to align one’s beliefs, ideas, and causes with a collective body. At its best, becoming a congregant of a local church, one 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 a better feel for the community, an individual should move on to a church where they feel their identity is more in sync. However, this often proves difficult because if I’m honest, churches are notorious for being unsure who they are and what they stand for on any given matter. How can a church require membership when it doesn’t know who it is?

This raises more questions than answers. Throughout my faith journey, I’ve surrounded myself with a diverse body of believers and non-believers. These spaces have been rooted in inclusion, and please hear me, said space is desperately needed.

And yet, is there room for discussion around exclusivity in church membership?

The historical institutional church has never had a problem naming heretics, establishing creeds, and orthodoxy to make the case for encompassing foundational beliefs. Whether admitted or not, the church has been handing out its “Members Only” jackets for over two millennia. Why, in some circles, is there passiveness to do so now? Is leadership afraid of alienating groups in their congregation, resulting in vacant pews? Can a local church at least confess where it stands on such issues as its interpretation of Scripture and whether or not it affirms women and LGBTQ persons in ministry? And while leadership and staff might understand the magnitude of these confessions, does the rest of the congregation?

For me, it all boils down to this: What does it mean to be part of your church? Scrap the talk of membership requirements, and stop being concerned about passing out “Members Only” jackets. Maybe the words of Wendell Berry will get churches closer to where they need to be. He writes, “The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”[1]

The prophet from Kentucky reminds us that everyone we meet is already part of God’s kin-dom. The sooner we realize this, the more we can do something about it.

Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Opinions and reflections are his own.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[1] Wendell Berry, That Distant Land: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2004), p. 356.

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