Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On church membership: Part 1

It was on Thanksgiving Sunday a decade ago that I felt like the idea of church membership actually started to mean something to me. It was the first time that I had actually chosen my community and that I had made a decision to step into membership. I don't think I have ever shared my story as a whole, so I thought it might be time to do so. I have tried to be sensitive to different churches in not naming them here, since I do not want to assert any negative ideas about any of them or project assumptions on their character. This is my journey through church membership over the past fifteen years, and each of these communities has been integral in that journey. I have learned from each experience, and I do not regret or dismiss any of them. With that caveat in mind, here goes.
I grew up in a Mennonite Brethren church that grew significantly in numbers as I got older; by the time I left at age 17, it had grown from a small community church (of which I had little memory) to a large community over 600 people and two services each Sunday. I was entrenched in the church from having attended there throughout my childhood, but I was not really connected there. I was involved in the drama team, even writing and directing several skits on Sunday mornings, and tangentially involved in the youth group, but I'm not sure I ever really felt like I fit in that community for various reasons: when I was young, there were no boys my age; when I was in junior high, all of my peers were really immature; and when I was in senior high, most of the kids who attended our youth group were skateboarders - not exactly my scene. I connected most with the twenty-somethings, as well as in another youth group in the city which included friends with whom I shared interests. So it was "my church", but not really "my" church. Here's the funny thing: I went back only once to my home church after I moved away, and that was on a youth night with a friend who was still in Grade 12 at the time; I felt entirely out of place and spent most of the evening visiting with the youth leaders. It wasn't that I disagreed with the church's theology, or that I was bitter with the way I was treated at that church; I just didn't have any remaining connection to the church.
I had decided to get baptized shortly before my 16th birthday, and I realized afterward that as a result I was automatically accepted as a member of the church. I know that I did not understand what it meant to be a member of a church at the time, or even that there were many ways of engaging as a member. As far as I knew, I was part of the church, as I had been my entire life, but I didn't really make any changes after becoming a member. Our church offered spiritual development classes which followed a baseball metaphor (I still can't believe that they talked about "getting to second base" from the pulpit without giggling), and even though I took a class on growth and membership and I understood more than most of my peers did, I'm not sure that I could have actually grasped what membership meant at that age. I actually stayed a member there for two years after I left, but then I was put in the special section of the church phone book for "members in absentia" or something like that. The weird thing was that only two people - one of whom was my youth pastor - ever followed up on me after I moved away, and those were both within my first few months on my own. I wasn't disappointed or embittered, though I did find it interesting that being a member did not make it any my absence any more or less meaningful.
When I moved away to a different city for university, I found a similarly large church that I attended for several years. I never became a member, partially due to the transient nature of my existence as a student, and partially due to being unsure about some of the doctrines and practices of that church. I almost left that church several times, but I ended up staying because of some of the friends I made there, because of my place in ministry at the university (there was a lot of overlap), and because I needed to be there to sort through some of my thoughts about that church. I left as well as I could (I felt), and I was glad that I had a home church to go to. See, while I was away at school attending a larger church, I began to connect with a church in my hometown that was a "plant" from the church I had attended throughout my youth. It was smaller community - about one hundred people, rather than 600 or 700 - and it was dynamic, exciting, and fresh. My mom had gone with the church plant, and my dad had started going to church there, so it seemed like a good place to start connecting - and I did! I connected with the pastor there immediately, I made some strong friends, and after attending there around a dozen times (over the course of two summers and the intervening holidays during the school year, I decided to become a member there. Technically, I was "transferring" my membership within the denomination, but there was something new about what I was doing that had not been there before. I chose my new community, and admittedly, they chose to take a risk on me. They knew my family, but they barely knew me other than popping in every couple of months or so, but the pastor brought me in anyway. I was 19 when I was accepted into membership there, and church membership meant something to me for the first time. I had already decided that I was going to move back to my hometown after that year of school to take the Education program there, so I only had to be away for a year.
I moved back and immediately found a place within that church. I was part of a "care group" (the terminology there for small groups) that included some newlywed friends and five couples who were well established in their marriages and families and church leadership and a precocious 19-year-old. It was a great experience for that year, and although at times I had to work hard to moderate myself in that context, I appreciated the richness of that group and the community. Then, at the end of that year, two of those couples moved away, and things changed. The group was different, and I struggled to stay there much longer; I left only a couple of months into the following year, though now I realize that I should not have. The new leadership of the church started tweaking things a bit, and there were more politics than before. I stepped into a nominal leadership role with young adults, but I soon found myself burning out, as I was still in leadership in ministry at university and trying to manage a very long-distance engagement. I tried to engage as a member, but I found myself often rebuffed where I had been embraced before. Halfway through that school year, I found myself realizing that I was not in sync with the church, and it seemed like they were going a different direction than I was. I remember the coffee I had with the pastor when I shared my realization with him and how he implored me to stick around just a little longer for his sake. I agreed, but I had reservations; I did not feel like I could fully be a member with how the church was moving. He died unexpectedly from a fast and sudden cancer eight months later.
I had a new problem now: I did not feel like a member there, but I did not feel like I could leave in the aftermath of the pastor's death. I stuck around half-heartedly for that school year, engaging only tangentially with the church, feeling a general disenfranchisement with my membership, as did a number of my peers at the church. In the meantime, I had some friends who were also working through their places in their respective churches; we sought each other out and banded together in an attempt to work through our issues with our churches and North American Evangelicalism in general. We called it "Ecclesia Semper Reformanda" - "the church always reforming" - and it was much more organic than it was organized (and not nearly as pretentious as it sounds). We worked through our issues on a weekly basis for the year in what essentially amounted to our primary faith community; wost of us were all connected, at least on paper, to a church, but our churches did not meet our needs. Many of those relationships are still significant to me today, and ESR got me through most of that year. By the time April rolled around, I knew that I needed to leave membership at my church for good. I did not know where I was going to, but I knew I could not stay there. I did not know if I would ever return to church membership, or even if I agreed with the idea of church membership, but I knew that I needed to take a risk and be freed from whatever I thought it might have been. I needed time to recalibrate and rethink this whole idea of "church membership" and what it really meant to me, so I took it and did not look back.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story, coming up in Part 2!

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