Membership Has Its Practices: Membership in Missional Communities After Christendom

imagesYesterday morning I posted on Twitter (@fitchest) :

The local church doesn’t demand sanctification upon joining. It requires commitment to the communal processes of sanctification upon joining

To me this is worth thinking about because it gets at the conundrum missional communities face when we start to think about membership within a decidedly post-Christendom culture where those who seek to commit to us have little formation in the Christian life. How do we discern membership? What requirements (encouragements) are necessary to make joining a body possible? To even make a social body of Christ a reality?

Many churches have tossed out the whole idea of membership out. Church becomes in essence a consumer activity, people coming and going to the activities as they best fit what I need or feel compelled to join. This is not church. This is not a covenant community,

On the other hand, the other standard response to membership is for churches to require a level of sanctification from a new member upon entering our Christian community. The church requires a certainty to believe certain things in a belief statement, a level of commitment to justice and/or sharing of money, tithes? a certain standard of sexual maturity? In my tradition, churches have even asked members to change smoking habits, drinking habits, sexual habits, swearing habits and other habits unbecoming to Christians before entry into membership. This was all too common years ago in the holiness movements.

There is a third option that I believe makes the most sense for communities in mission. Here local churches in mission focus on the new members’ willingness to commit to a set of communal practices that define the community, what the community does, who it worships, and how its sociality is birthed in the work of the Spirit.

To join in with a community is to join in with its life together as defined by a set of practices. (Check out in this regard Life Together by Bonhoeffer) Such practices should be obvious and part of the visible display of what it means to be a member. These practices should includes patterns of mutual submission, speaking truth in love and receiving it, Matt 18:15-20 and “binding and loosing,” the submitting to the Lord’s Table and the hearing of Word. These practices are the means by which space is made for the the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. We therefore are not looking for a certain level of sanctification from the new member/believer, we are looking for a commitment to join together in the communal processes of sanctification. To me, the process of submitting in mutual submission to what God is doing here is where not only the new member’s sanctification becomes worked out, but through his or her working it out the community itself also gets sanctified. This is what I take to be central to the Anabaptist understanding of church.

To make the commitment to practices central to membership in the local community (as opposed to standards of belief or behavior) changes the way we deal with many sin issues. We welcome all, yet that welcome is also into a mutually transforming community under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. Here in the processes of mutual transformation, including being present with each other in the confession/listening to each other’s sins, God works the sanctification of us all. Such a community demands that the specific practices of the community are spelled out as our rule of life together. There should be an initiation process that introduces the new member to these practices: what do we do when we worship? Receive the Eucharist? study the Bible? Have conflict? Commit to be with the poor? Be with our children? Commit to be married? Pray together in the neighborhood? Carry on leadership structures? It demands that leadership always be part of the community and in submission to the community to assure that the kind of cultish abuse so common in hierarchical churches be thwarted. This approach to membership will change the way we think about people with obvious sin in their lives, or at least more obvious than the sin in our own lives is obvious to us (of course we may need these folk to reveal sin in our lives because we have become either so used to our own sin or good at hiding it from other people.) Lastly, it would be foolhardy to think that there will be no doctrinal beliefs that will be part of the membership process.  Rather what I am suggesting is that regarding the outworking of sin issues, we must learn to think differently in terms of membership and acceptance.  We must learn to trust the work of sanctification by the Spirit within the community. The local church shouldn’t demand sanctification upon joining. It should focus on each person’s commitment to the communal processes of sanctification upon joining

I know many churches, missional communities who gather on the basis of a set of practices of the Christian faith as opposed to a set of standards of the Christian faith. Take a look at this post from The Story in Sarnia, Ontario for instance. Take at look at this church in Miami Florida. What do you think? What are the dangers here?  What problems are there when we focus on standards for membership as opposed to commitments to communal practices?

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Posted in Church Planting, Incarnational, Missional, Missional Ecclesiology, Missional Leadership, Neo-Anabaptist, Post-Christendom
13 comments on “Membership Has Its Practices: Membership in Missional Communities After Christendom
  1. Dan Jr. says:

    David you had me at Bonhoeffer.

    I encourage church planters to plant with a team or a “leading community” that first commits/covenants to a Rhythm and Rule of Life which in turn creates a hot center that acts as a centripetal pull in our network of relationships. These practices form our “way of life”.

    I find that the process of mutually formulating a written Rhythm and Rule can actually bring essential conflict or clarity to the surface.

    Additionally the nature of “practices” is that their transformative return is dependent on longevity and regularity. There is a mental shift in seeing the work of the Holy Spirit beyond a Burst or Event framework and seeing the Spirit’s work primarily in an incremental-revival framework.

  2. Michael VandenEnden says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the post.

    I see an inconsistency with this positive trend toward practices, which I suppose could be a danger if not corrected.

    Your point that leadership always be part of the community and in submission to the community is on the mark, for sure. But the tendency I’m seeing with congregations moving toward this ecclesiology is that the sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

    That is, the ideological leaders of a local congregation who have caught this vision encourage covenant community in the local context, and they are submitted to it as with everyone else (as much as an ideological leader can be). But then those same leaders are not, or even unwilling to enter into, a covenanted relationship with a wider fellowship, one which they do not choose for themselves. Often these churches will have a “denominational affiliation” or “association”—and it will be one that they chose. They rightly reject the rationalistic/individualistic approach to church membership at the local level, but then continue that same approach at a wider level.

    For Yoder, I wonder if the relationship between ortsgemeinde and bundesgemeinde was such a given from his Mennonite context and time period that he didn’t see the need to argue it. As a result, missional leaders picking up on Yoder’s “Rule of Paul” miss that it is equally important for congregations as it is for individual believers in a congregation. How do we invite these missional leaders to be a part of wider covenant community which they do not define for themselves?

    Michael V.

  3. Chris Morton says:

    Practices are good, but how do you avoid legalism and cult-like “accountability” standards?

    My experience at the Apple Store was very membership focused. But it was more based on a sense of identity that anything else (although specific practices were constantly referenced.)

  4. I’ve always had a strange relationship with the idea of church membership, growing up in the Church of God (Anderson, IN) which didn’t have formal membership.
    I certainly see the importance of consenting formally to church discipline standards, or perhaps assenting to some basic church philosophies or beliefs, but I’ve never bought fully into the idea that such community was impossible absent a “covenant” commitment.
    My wife and I recently attended a local plant that straddled the line between a Baptist megachurch mold and something more missional and we were extremely put off by their approach to membership.
    Essentially, 50% or more of “being church” with them was in the form of community/small groups. But it was made clear that these groups were not for those uninterested in membership. (So I need to become a member in order to experience more than 50% of church life? But what if I then don’t like it?)
    As a small plant they also expected ALL members to commit to spending some time working in the children’s ministry, regardless of each member’s individual gifts. This meant a background check was a requirement to membership.
    The church’s other stated goal was reaching the inner city. (How do you reach the inner city effectively when a BACKGROUND CHECK is the bar necessary to experience all this community has to offer?)

    We didn’t stick around.

    This is, to be fair, perhaps an extreme case, but I think it speaks some to the logical failure of church membership language in the unreached world. Namely: we consider a covenant relationship to be an extremely big deal–MARRIAGE is another example of one–and so we ask very new believers to join one in order to “belong.”
    I think it’s an expectation that can easily create an abusive situation, and even if it doesn’t do so, it still resembles the church asking new believers to hurry up marry this, the first faith community they’ve come in contact with. Doesn’t that invite skepticism from them? I’m BY NO MEANS a new believer and it invites it in me.

  5. DanH says:

    There is an assumption of membership that I question. Check out this illustration, if you could, and critique it:

    It tries to show an ideal, though very simple, picture of the church in a place.

    Should there be such a thing as a particular group to which one can make a special and limiting connection (as you do in marriage)?

  6. Hi David

    I love your writing and I like what you’re saying here.

    I agree that creating a set of holiness/purity laws is unhelpful to define membership in any Church – and that shared practices should have a central place in membership definition.

    But there’s one line that you write that makes me a bit nervous: “The church requires a certainty to believe certain things in a belief statement”…

    I wonder if there isn’t a real danger in overemphasizing practices with absolutely no core belief statement?

    Having traversed through the liberal/mainline in my lifetime – I’ve seen a fair bit of great and lovely shared practice in the church – sometimes as those same folks (sometimes even leaders) share no common belief in something as central as the divinity of Jesus – or the Trinity.

    Because of this I’m leery of putting shared practice as the key or central function of membership – with absolutely no baseline of shared belief for that shared practice to flow out from.

    On top of being dangerous, it feels like it deviates from some of the historical practices of the Church, which have included Creeds as part of the Baptismal / membership initiation processes.

    Sure, not all traditions are Creedal, but I wonder if the shared practices don’t need to flow from some basic, agreed sense of orthodoxy – i.e. a minimal baseline set of beliefs. This could be as simple as the Apostles’ Creed – or something else.

    Perhaps you’re already assuming that basic orthodoxy, at least in leaders (or maybe you aren’t?) – but, from experience, I know that not all so-called Christian communities do.

    Perhaps you’re not saying throw out the belief statements entirely – but allow folks to have varying levels of certainty around them and allow these to be lived out as we share a common life in Christ?

    If that’s the case, I’m OK with where you’re going. Still, I do think there’s a risk of becoming a civic club instead of a church if you have (for example) great justice-work or shared meals, or even worship – but it’s not rooted in some core shared belief.

    Just a thought.

  7. Dan and Chris,

    Dan, I am right there with you. Our philosophy of planting was to develop rhythms and practices of life that centered around discipleship forming community. This creates the witness to the neighborhood/network (work, activity clubs, etc) of what the community of Jesus looks like. What was the image? A family.

    Chris, I also think that if we make the rhythms and practices the central marker of “membership,” we will flirt with legalism . This is why we identify ourselves as family. Every family has friends and acquaintances, but to be a part of the family you participate and do what the family does. As a family of Jesus followers, we give an opportunity for people to join us. Some become family while others remain close friends.

    From our experience, everyone knows the difference and everyone is cool with the difference. We have had other communities come stay with us to learn our rhythms and practices. As a part of this experience, we invite our friends who do not follow Jesus to speak of the family of Jesus followers and their experience of doing life with us. This is always a very enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

    • Chris Morton says:

      Family is an important differentiator for sure. However, as a 32 year old single dude, I always try to encourage people to use more creative language. My current fav. is “covenant member.” Also, see my comments to Dave below.


      • Chris,

        I understand what you’re saying, and I like covenant member as well. We are currently working to solidify what it means to be a covenant member of our community. But I think we show a little of our hyper-individualism when we think of family through the lens of nuclear family. Once we hit the age of 25 we see ourselves as singles until we get married and start our own family, if we choose to do so.

        How does this shape our understanding of the new covenant? The new covenant seems to be implying a new messianic family. “Whoever does the will of my Father…is my mother and brother.” What does Jesus mean by mother and brother? Acts uses the language of “brothers and sisters.” As does Paul.

        I would argue that only viewing family as nuclear, and viewing nuclear as what we have produced after the age of 25 is leftover from modernism. My hope it that postmodernism may effectively redeem the deeply rooted understanding of the extended family.

  8. David Fitch says:

    Hey all… Great conversation! thanks for the comments.
    My quick response is
    - Chris, there’s a danger of legalism here… there’s a danger in everything. The question is “is legalism necessary to the practices?” I don’t think it is … and I think it is warded off through the practice of mutual submission. Still it won’t be perfect and nothing else will be either least not yet.
    -Rob, I think belief committments are still viable and important. Creeds are dangerous however when they come from political accomodations to power (read Yoder here on Nicea) and so there must be space to engage, critique and express these commitments in language that makes sense to the community out of everyday life in mission.

    • Chris Morton says:


      I have to admit I’m allergic to legalism because of my own story.

      Here’s my hope: the difference between legalism and membership expectations is found in how it is framed. Legalism says “we do things/don’t do things because we are right.” Covenant Membership says “These are the practices we agree will help us become more like Jesus.”

      Hopefully, if you frame it right, there’s always too much grace to develop legalism.


  9. Jim Hogue says:

    I think you can avoid the consumer mentality if the community is invested in service, practice and discipleship in a community context. The consumer problem arises when the community is primarily the audience of its leaders. That passive posture makes membership a matter of “agreeing to behave” with little commitment to mission and practices of discipleship.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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