The Meaningful Mess of Membership - Part 2

The Meaningful Mess of Membership – Part 2

In the second of three posts on church membership I want to take a closer look at some of the cultural factors that contribute to our hesitancy in committing to a local church – some are the product of legitimate concern, while others are idols characteristic of our day and age.[1]

Cultural Hindrances

1.    We are anti-institutional. The constant presence of deception and abuse among our institutional leadership has led to an understandable cynicism – a reaction only intensified by the postmodernist claim that power inevitably corrupts. The result is that institutions like the Church are viewed as oppressive and manipulative before people even walk through the doors. This is increasingly true of all generations but particularly Millennials – “The Distrustful Generation.” As Christians, this trend runs counter to our belief that God has ordained institutions for the deep, widespread, and long-term good of this world.

2.    We are individualistic consumers. Our sense of identity and responsibility is primarily individual, not communal; and our course of action is increasingly determined by the question, “What’s in it for me?” A major sociological study on the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults describes this dominant view:

[The] absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her own sovereign self…Nobody is bound to any course of action by virtue of belonging to a group or because of a common good. Individuals are autonomous agents who have to deal with each other, yes, but do so entirely as self-directing choosers. The words duty, responsibility, and obligation feel somehow vaguely coercive or puritanical.[2]

This concept of the individual as an “autonomous agent” is given voice within the American church through implicit and explicit messages about “just me and Jesus,” which emphasize private spirituality over communal practices. In an age of instant access to live streaming video, unlimited downloads, and the ability to travel wherever we want, we can, ostensibly, receive the benefits of the church without being “limited” by commitment to one particular community. What’s the benefit of a commitment that only seems to limit my choices and add the messiness of  relationships and submission to leadership?

3.    We have FOMO (fear of missing out). We are worried that we might commit to the wrong thing, appearing foolish to friends and family and missing out on other exciting opportunities. However, when we desire (and actually think it possible!) to enjoy all the benefits of a community without paying any of the costs, we are essentially cohabiting with the church rather than making a marriage commitment. In order to truly experience all the blessings of any relationship — to another individual or a community — you must embrace it in such a way that you are limited by and bound to it. Commitment is the cost of belonging. G. K. Chesterton says it best:

To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose…Every act of the will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject anything else…Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.[3]

4.    Lastly, we are looking for the perfect church. We wait for a church that worships just as we like, that checks each of our doctrinal boxes, and lives in community without conflict. The problem is, as you might have guessed, that church doesn’t exist – there is no perfect church because every church is filled with imperfect people, like you and me. As many have said before, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Don’t come in with all of your expectations and demands, waiting for others to serve you. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together: those who love the idea of Christian community more than the community itself become the destroyers of Christian community. It is only those who get their hands dirty to create community that ever get it.

Now that we have addressed some of the major influences which hold many people back from making a commitment to a particular church, we still must answer the important question, “Why should I join?” In the next post we will look at the positive, biblical reasons we should become members of a church.



[1] By “our age” I am referring to general trends in the thinking and behaviors of Christians in America today, while most specifically focusing on the faith of young people.

[2] Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 49, emphasis his.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 1994), 50-51.