Well, as a sort of belated commentary on the season, I'd like to chronicle an important step in our journey. Last Sunday, we were accepted as members of our congregation. That means it's official: Belonging to the formal membership of an Lutheran congregation means were are fully Lutheran now, and it's about time.
Church membership is something I have felt somewhat strongly about over the last few years, especially being raised in a tradition that didn't practice it, and working for a church that had the most meaningless application of it. The last church we were in didn't even have the proverbial list that people's name went on after you join the church. Our directory, full of "members," included people who didn't come twice a year, never formally joined the church, or even made a profession of faith for that matter, and even some who had actually moved on and were attending other congregations! When one new person who had been coming for a while expressed a desire to join, it went like this. The pastor, while making announcements, said, "oh and by the way, [this person] would like to join the church. Come on up here! Do you believe in Jesus Christ and have you been baptized? Yes? Is there anybody here who has any reason why she should not be a member? All in favor? Welcome to our family! "
She sat down after a total of 30 seconds and some brief applause. What the point of those questions were, I may never know. Was it actually possible that somebody was going to say, in the middle of a Sunday service, "Absolutely not! I think she should not be admitted to our ranks."? It was such an empty formality. Nothing changed afterward. She was not taught what we believe, given any permissions or benefits, or expected to participate in the life of the congregation in specific, tangible ways. It was pretty much just, oh, she wants to be in? Ok, everyone good with that? Great! You're in. Completely meaningless, waste of time.
Michael Horton, the host of highly recommended radio program "The White Horse Inn," is known for lamenting this decline of the practice of membership. He says that often, a kid can be born into a church that won't baptize him, go through the Sunday School program, attend youth group, go to Christian camps, accept Jesus as his savior, go off to college (even a Christian one!) where he participates in some form of campus fellowship or ministry, and finally graduate and go off into the world without ever having belonged to a church. My question is this: What stands between this person and their two most likely paths: Loosing interest in faith communities as an unnecessary component of the "personal relationship with Jesus," and becoming a religious consumer with little to no congregational loyalty beyond what the growth experts and marketing consultants call "branding?" Nothing. We have not taught our youth that formally committing oneself to a specific assembly of our faith family is a vital component to the life of faith. Do we even believe that? Is the church tangential to the Christian life? I'm afraid we treat it that way. It's just a side-show, designed to aid and assist those who so desire. The church has essentially been reduced to the level of para-church, and I blame the CEO's masquerading as Pastors who leverage branding strategies to exploit the consumerist mentality of their "customers."
All that to say, that I am 100% guilty of all of the above. I am 27 years old, and for the first time in my life, I belong to a congregation, formally. The blame does not rest fully with myself or any specific churches with which I have been associated in the past. I believe the problem is systemic to Evangelicalism at large. I grew up in the Calvary Chapel who doesn't practice formal membership, but simply counts you "in" if you attend regularly. I went to a Southern Baptist college where we had Chapel 3 times a week. I'm not gonna lie, I slept in on many a Sunday, sometimes catching evening services at the mega-church that ran our college. They did have formal membership there, which I was strongly encouraged to pursue when I began my internship. I never followed through with it, I couldn't stomach the four boring classes required which explained to me what the church believed. I rightly assumed I would learn nothing from them, since the church was quite generically evangelical, with slight dispensational leanings. Later that year I moved on to another internship, graduated, and worked for two more Southern Baptist churches as a worship leader and youth pastor. One church gave me a formal installation during a morning service and may have actually had a membership roster. But for what was it used, nobody knew.
I am a concrete example of what Michael Horton preaches against. After listening to his teaching for the past few years, I became convinced of the importance of this issue. My then current church refused to consider the issue, as it would be too "legalistic." In my opinion, they were legalistically anti-formal membership, as if somehow informality was the Christ-instituted means for association.
As members of our new church, we are held accountable to worship, serve, and give. We have a Pastor who gives us the Sacraments services of the church, including marriage, funerals, and baptizing our children. We have elders who pray for us and are there to give us encouragement and guidance. We have buy-in, and ownership of the church, its tradition, its organization, leaders, and other members. We have officially declared that this dysfunctional group of spiritual misfits trying to be disciples is OUR family, with whom we will identify, grow, serve, argue, fight, and learn to forgive, for better or worse. Our status in the Church Catholic is not dependent on our remaining here, but as long as we are here, we have publicly committed to express our faith through doing life together with this rag-tag group of imperfect saints.
We're assuming they're imperfect spiritual misfits because they're human. We're too new to know it personally, and the real challenges begin once we truly get to know each other. The good news is, most members of this church have long tenure, many of over 20 years. People here know how to disagree and still love each other. Our family is really a microcosm of our denomination at large. You the pietistic purpose-driven crowd, the "bronze age" traditionalists, moderate middle-of-the-road group, and the ones who truly own their Lutheran confessions and traditions (the group I fall in). Yet these groups are not at war with one another, and have demonstrated a spirit of willingness to compromise and give each group a little leeway.
So for thanksgiving this year, I am predominantly thankful for these things. First, my wife and I have finally found a tradition to call home, Missouri-Synod Lutheranism. Second, we have found a family to belong to, and they are delightful. Third, I have full time employment, doing music only and not youth-ministry, in this down economy. Fourth, I have the one job in the whole country where I get to do everything I wanted. Think about this; How many positions are there in America where a guy can teach music (choir) at the secondary level, direct a traditional, liturgical choir, become an organist and grow in that ability, while still directing praise bands that make the hymns sound like the Rolling Stones? I don't know if there's another position out there like this one. It's a lot to keep up with, I'll admit, but the work is so fulfilling. I didn't apply to any other jobs near this far east. But when I read the job description, I thought, "how ideal would that be?" It was nothing less than a move of God that brought me here: My resume was sacked because "organist" wasn't on it, and they called somebody else first. That person turned it down, and somehow the committee decided to ring my number.
I know it's not God's job to provide us all with "our best life now," or the highest fulfillment in this life, but I know that where we are at now is His gift to us, and we are enjoying it supremely. God is good, and we are thankful.