“If you have built castles in the sky
Let not your dreams go to waste;
Just build the foundations under them.”
Henry David Thoreau

We’ve been working our way down from the religious superstructure of belief, through the behaviors that embody our spiritual life, and now we’re coming to the basic identity questions that motivate Christian life. Descartes seemed to answer the fundamental question of identity for the modern era with “I think, therefore I am.” Human identity was fixed, factual, and self-contained. In the postmodern world, the questions have shifted from “who am I?” to “where am I?” and “whose am I?” That is, we experience our identities as dynamic and relational. In Christian terms, we should talk less about propositional ideas of God and more about prepositions: who are we in, through, with, and toward God, and who is God in/through/with/toward us? For a Christian community, belonging must be more than a membership roster with its attendant trivial obligations; it must be a dynamic relationship with God, neighbor, and self.

Under a recent major revision to the Presbyterian form of church government, we find ourselves without the category of “inactive member.” We used to keep rolls of “baptized members,” meaning children of members who had been baptized into the life of the church; “active members” who participated regularly in the life of the church (whatever we meant by that); and “inactive members,” who no longer participated in congregational life but had not requested to be removed from the rolls altogether. A colleague described the inactive list as a kind of tacit reservation for the funeral: the church would be expected to do one last thing for this member, but we shouldn’t count on seeing them anytime before that. The task force that worked so hard to revise our form of government asked rightly what “inactive” could mean relative to a definition of membership as “a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission” (Book of Order G-1.0304). Of course, we are still strongly encouraged to extend pastoral care to those who no longer participate in the church, but the record-keeping no longer has an official category for them.

In light of this, our membership committee has pondered about what to do with the sizable “inactive list” (no longer a “roll”) we’ve accumulated over the years. We’ve talked about what it would entail to make a good-faith effort to track these folks down and ask them if they wanted to become “active members” again, or what it would mean to simply acknowledge that “inactive” means “no longer a member” and keep the list for historical and pastoral purposes (this is effectively the default position). Overall, we’re pushing against the question of what exactly we mean by membership to begin with. What constitutes active participation in the life of the church – certain levels of financial support, worship attendance, or service on a committee? Certainly not a doctrinal sign-off on a set of beliefs, which (even if we had a solid creedal consensus) is going about it the wrong way. We have long-standing “active” members who seem to have no interest in what we believe or what we do on Sundays, and we have non-members who attend every week and probably do more to support the church than many whose names are on the roster. I don’t take any of this particularly personally (and certainly don’t mean it as such), but it illustrates to me what an empty notion “membership” has become.

If I could rewrite the standards myself, here’s what I would do:

  1. Membership is an annual commitment to a particular, individual level of participation in the life of the church. This does include worship attendance, service in some kind of ministry of the church, some regular spiritual practice (whatever we mean by that), and financial support in whatever amount is appropriate for a given person.
  2. We hold people to these commitments out of pastoral concern, because the point of membership is to grow and deepen our spiritual lives in a particularly deliberate way.
  3. If someone decides not to renew membership or make commitments in a given year, they remain on a list of those who should continue to receive attention from the pastor and others (especially the Deacons). This list is to embody the hymn’s promise: “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose… I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”

What I’m less clear about is what the looser relational network of the church could/should look like. How do we make space for people to find a dynamic, fluid relationship with God/self/other, while also living out a commitment to real deep welcome? What does belonging act like? I’m probably trying too hard to reverse the terms so behavior and belief flow out of belonging. It’s something more of an interplay between the three, and I’m having a hard time putting that in any clear terms.

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