The church should be countercultural, a school of life, a pocket of resistance against the status quo, a foretaste (and first fruit) of things to come. It isn’t always.

The question becomes, should we join a church? (The short answer is “yes” and I’ll now refer you to “Why go to a church service?”). The issue that fascinates me is the one of how and why we go about becoming “members” of a church, because there are some real consequences to this decision.

Some people just aren’t joiners, or at least want no part of the rigamarole of joining. Whenever I’ve joined a church in the past, there were forms and doctrine statements that I had to sign to attest to their beliefs. I have NEVER been to a church were my beliefs lined up perfectly with theirs (mostly I skim them to see whether or not I can still drink). More than once I’ve told them that I can’t sign their membership papers because they would be making me lie to them (usually, they say that it’s just an acknowledgment that we know what the church believes. I still couldn’t shake the feeling like I was being Mirandized). Some churches have made me go through classes, as if you could actually flunk out (Lord knows, to my wife’s dismay, I’ve tried). Most times, joining a church has been more like an arranged marriage: can we live with each other.

I think any regular attender is a member. By the power of their presence, they have placed themselves under that church’s “authority,” as it were, to speak into their lives. One of the church’s role is to facilitate people into the formation of Christ’s image and I understand that trying to get some manner of commitment out of them would ease that process. And I get the frustration that some leaders have when their members have a lackadaisical attitude toward regular attendance.

But you know what? I would seriously consider not joining a church. Seriously. If one of the church’s roles is to make disciples, we do that (practically speaking) by being a part of people’s lives and butting into them. In fact, in this regard, I don’t see the church operating much differently than, say, AA (or insert whatever you want for what it is the church is trying to get you up those 12 steps to solve). Frankly, I might even go one step further and say don’t be a part of any close circle of friends. Only this past week I was asked whether or not a friend’s situation had deteriorated to the point of needing an intervention. An intervention certainly sounds like a group of us taking it upon ourselves to butt in where we aren’t particularly wanted.

I would enter into joining a faith community with my eyes wide open to the fact that being a part of a church body means you are inviting them into your life every bit as much as they are inviting you into theirs. That’s the nature of relationships and the reality of community. The deeper the relationship, the more likely butting in and holding each other into account there will be. So if I wanted to do whatever I wanted, with people being allowed to speak into my life when I want them to and only in the areas I want them, I wouldn’t join any faith community – especially a smaller one where people are more likely to know me.

If you are going to speak into my life, you have to have a relationship with me. More than an “I recognize your face/I know your name” relationship. We have to have lived life together. Shared times. Then you’ve earned the right to speak into my life. People need to belong before they believe, even if they never believe. The church should be a hospice, a safe haven where people can work out their questions. Allowing doubts, allowing people of differing beliefs, doesn’t change what you believe. Accepting and welcoming people where they are and as they are doesn’t change what we believe the Bible has to say about what’s right or wrong. We can’t just be about wagging fingers at one another.

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