We joined the church today. Many gave warm congratulations, welcoming us back. We had been members from late 1997 to 2005, when we helped start a church plant nearby. That is its own story, worth telling; but it closed in May 2007. For two years we were committed to outreach in a small community. The end felt abrupt, although one could see it coming from some distance away. For the past year we have been back at SMC, and today we renewed our membership there. Sometimes I wonder why: what does the gesture mean? Anything?
Not everyone sees membership as important. I am (I think) in a minority in the value I place on it. Many attend a large church and never consider any more formal step. Others participate in smaller fellowships where they feel fully at home, welcomed, belonging; no formal membership seems necessary. Our society prizes flexibility, choice, freedom; and membership can become a cumbersome obstacle. Why not define membership by attendance? If you come here, you belong. If you don't you don't.
I can speak only for myself, knowing that others whose judgment I respect do not share my impulse to make a public declaration for the thing itself to be real and true.
So first, for myself, I note the sound sense contained in our societal reflex. Formal membership can become formalism all too easily. Some substitute a public display for a real relationship, whether in a failed marriage or in a disappointing church experience. My first commitment, then, is to truth, to be true -- to God, to myself, to my family. Formal membership must grow out of real belonging. Public witness grows out of, comes out of, springs from real, lived, dynamic relationships. If the formal outer display exists alone, hypocrisy results. I'm a child of the Sixties: I commit myself to be true!
But I do not only reflect my age; I follow the beat of God's drum. Family requires commitment, not just liking and feeling good. A man and woman grow together and fall deeply in love. No formal commitment seems necessary. We sang so many years ago, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" No formal commitment; just stay with me! Of course, she didn't. Wedding vows help one keep one's deep inner desire to love forever. The promise means something, not just at that moment, but in the work and joy that follows.
So also in my church family. I belong at a deeper level than the formal commitment; but I make the promise to belong and act like I belong for at least two reasons: 1) I know that I will not always like SMC. But the longer I keep my commitment as a member, the greater the space to feel the greatest joy of belonging. 2) I know that I feel the sense of family that we have at SMC. I want others to know it too. Just as baptism functions to witness to the people around us that God is at work in our lives, formal membership is a witness to the community and to the church that we are God's family.
My reasons are not profound, deeper than thought. They are surface, I think, and somewhat trite. But they are real; they are mine; I belong here and now to God's family at SMC.