Saturday, November 12, 2005

You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Church

You know those signs at the front of the roller coaster line? The ones that have a cartoon character holding out his arm and if you can walk under the arm you cannot ride the ride? I remember once my daughter scraped the underside of the sign and was not allowed on the ride. Literally, had she been wearing a different pair of shoes, she would have made it! But the standard was rigid. For good reason, too. Her safety was at stake.

We get into trouble, however, when we attempt to apply such rigid standards to other situations. Take public schools, for instance. The governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, wants to make a blanket requirement that 65% of the money in each school district is spent in the classroom. Sounds okay as an idea, huh? But then I read that some really excellent school districts are not close to that level. I remember reading that Liberty school district spends about 58% of its money in the classroom, and it is one of the best in the state. To require Liberty to raise their in classroom spending to 65% would require the reduction of some of the other wonderful things they are currently funding - things like arts, sports, or professional clubs, perhaps.

Or take church membership, as another example. There are many who want to put really high standards on becoming a member of a church. For example, you must attend a certain percentage of worship services, or give a certain percentage of your income, or serve in a certain number of outreach opportunities per year, or confess particular sins, etc. These, among other things, are some of the standards that some churches require in order for someone to be a full member. If you cannot agree to meet the standards, you cannot be a member of the church. And I certainly agree that supporting your church with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service, as well as confessing your sin before God, are desirable activities for church members.

But do we go too far? When we assign rigid standards to becoming a church member, what have we done to the meaning of membership? Have we not changed church into something to which we belong rather than something that we are?

If you start a club, you can set your own standards for membership - high sign, secret handshake, whatever. Problem is, church is not a club. People do not "belong to" the church; people ARE the church. Just like that old Sunday School song says - "We are the church together." Church membership is not like joining a club, not a status symbol, not an item on one's resume, not access to a set of privileges denied to non-members. To set rigid standards on church membership is to demean the church by making it just one more club among many.

"High standard" churches tend to have a lot of people in them, however. Surely this fact would tend to lead us toward imposition of such rigid expectations for membership. Yes, if you are using numerical growth as your only assessment tool for "success." It is difficult to measure faithfulness, however. And to say that large membership churches are the only ones that are being faithful is just not truthful, and a gross oversimplification of reality. An incarnate relationship that invokes the presence of Christ requires only 2 or 3 to gather in his name.

The "mystic, sweet communion" that is the Church of Jesus Christ is so much more than artificially imposed standards can reflect. Anywhere, anytime, any group gathers in the name of Christ Jesus, there is the church. To say anything else, it seems to me, is shoddy ecclesiology. Let's take down the "You Must Be This Tall..." signs at our church doorways and start being the church again!


Michael said...

Do you suppose, then, that we've taken away the true meaning of membership? Or do you suggest that being a member is not important?

I guess I missed your point, but it seems as though you are saying that if anyone expresses a desire to be a member of a church, then it should just happen?

I admit that since the Ed Johnson case was decided, I've grappled with what it means as well. We come dangerously close to saying that one must essentially prove to have been sanctified before being allowed to join.

But what about Paul's admonishment of the church at Corinth in 1 Cor 5? That man was presumably a "member" but he was up to no good outside the church, and the membership took no action against him to put him out. Paul says he must go. Paul also demands a standard of sorts. What do we do with that?


Seamhead said...

Paul's smart guy, but sometimes I think he's wrong. When the BTK killer was captured the pastor of his church continued to visit him. He must be a man of great strength indeed.

Member is a bad word for churches I think. Maybe if we think of people as worshippers. Who shouldn't be allowed to be a worshipper at a church? That's an easier question to answer.

Adam Caldwell said...

This is certainly a tough issue. I will grant you that, but I don't necessarily think that there is anything wrong with high standards. If I recall, Christ had some pretty big ones. Prayers, presence, gifts, and service that is our slogan, but what does it mean? Does it mean that my presence is only needed once a month and I have fulfilled my duty. No! In order for us to be "worshipers" collectively worshiping we must be present on a weekly basis. Everyone is needed. You could argue the same with prayers gifts and service. I truly think that leaving all of the standards up to the individual congregation is the way to go. Since when do we set the standards for other believers? To say that a church is "doing it wrong", because they have high standards seems very elitist. If gives the impression that we have it all figured out. God holds us all accountable in our own ways. Perhaps through rigid standards is how those people are most effectively "the church". That is who the ARE.

Seamhead said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seamhead said...

Having rigids standards is only useful for excluding people. I don't understand how letting anyone worship who wants to worship would be elitist.

Let them come. Show them love. The will become become hungry to serve and give.

Paul is definitely wrong to kick someone out of church.

Brett Royal said...

If you don't have standards for church members, how do you know what your church stands for? When I meet someone who in conversations tells me they are methodist, I would like to think that we have a lot in common. Sadly, this may not be the case.

Seamhead said...

Why would it be sad that someone who was Methodist had nothing in common with you?? It should be gloroius!! It should be wonderful that Jesus could bring together such beautifully diverse group of people.

A fine pastor ;) whose church I once attended told a great story about a pastor who brought a cake to a diner in the middle of the night to celebrate the birthday of prostitute. The man working at the diner said that's the kind of church he would love to attend.

A church should be a place where a great diversity of folks gather to share love and to help each other overcome the power sin has over their lives. It shouldn't be a place where someone says "you've done this. You can no longer worship with us." It should be a place where they say, "We forgive you! We love you! We are gonna help you put these demons to rest!"

Adam Caldwell said...


I don't think that having rigid standards excludes people form worship. Anyone is invited to worship, but membership is a different story. I am really trying to not contradict myself here. I think that there is a difference in being a church that is accepting of everyone and loving everyone, but has high standards for membership. I think that you can have both. We don't want to exclude anyone. I don't think that Christ wanted to either, but the fact still remains that he turned more away than he drew towards him. I believe Andy even wrote a blog on that fact. (Measuring how well you are doing ministry by the number of people you make mad.)

All I can speak is from experience. The individuals that are most involved in serving in our Community at Ashland UMC are our new members. We have explained to them that it is not just good enough for them to show up once a week and "serve their time" so to speak, but that they are called to "be the church." A church that serves, is present, is giving, and most of all Love's the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.

I just can't see how that is a bad thing. It makes their membership vowels mean something real. They're not just mindless words that fulfill their religous duty.

Seamhead said...

Adam your view is much different than Bret's view that he likes to know that he has a lot in common with others of his denomination.

So let's get to the meat. A gay man is a member of your church. He does a lot more than 'serve his time.' Of course, of course he believes (as many methodists do) that homosexuaulity is not a sin. The pastor of your church has a different perspective, and he wants to remove the man from his church.

What do you think of that? Who gets to set the standard here? Do the views of a slight majority get more creedence than the views of the minority?

Michael said...


The only standard that is left is the scriptural standard; the Bible trumps man. The reason we cannot seem to agree on this standard is because too many have disengaged from the written Word and re-defined scripture and have attempted to nullify the only real standard we have.

Anonymous said...

When we got married, some churches had a problem with our union. I was Catholic, he was a Baptist. How could that work? In fact, the Baptist minister in our town suggested we go to another city where they had a chapel who would "marry anyone." None of these rejectors had even taken the time to meet us. I guess we were just "anyone" to him, but to us, we wanted our marriage to start out as a sacred commitment to serve God and each other.

The church we found to let us get married was the Methodist Church. We had been attending the alternative services there for a few months at the time. The pastor who performed our service was an associate at the Disciples of Christ Christian Church. Open doors, open hearts, open minds. Woo hoo for us!

A few months later, yes, I said a few, we had a baby. We were embraced by the church. How exciting! Nine months later we baptised her in the United Methodist Church and became "members."

We obviously were "sinners" living in it openly. We were not accepted other places. But our church welcomed us. They WANTED us. I never heard from Pastor Curry that we did not meet the standards to be members. I never heard a list of requirements we had to fulfill to remain members. They were just happy that we had chosen to go to church at all. And because of this acceptance, I started to get very involved, not because someone expected me to, but because that's what you do for your family.

Hearing all of this quackery makes me so sad. That is not my experience. I joined because of my own situation that others may have viewed as unworthy or unsuitable for a church of such high standards - but this church opened their door for me. I wonder now if we would even be able to join in those same circumstances. How sad.

Shelly :)!

Michael said...

Good story, Shelly. I see your point. However, it appears you and your husband showed a readiness to be active members with a commitment to the Lord. I think maybe this would be the only real criteria a pastor could or should use.

Adam Caldwell said...

HMMM...On this point I think that we will have to agree to disagree. I have no problem empowering homosexuals to ministry. We have two at our church right now that are very active members.

Here's how I see it. I don't condone their actions, but on the same hand, I leave it up to the holy spirit to work on that persons heart. If they are a dedicated Christian interested in making Disciples of Christ, then let's go baby. Let's get it done.

Why can I not be a supporter and empower homosexuals to ministry while at the same time disagreeing with their practices? To some this may seem like a contradiction, but it somehow makes sense in my head.

Believe me, I take issue with individuals who speak of this issue as outside of themselves, or as "those" homosexuals. You can read my own blog to understand that. I know and understand that these are real people in real situations.

It's tough, it's not easy, but I don't think that few standards for membership is the right way to go either. Honestly, I think it's because of our history of short standards that our overall membership has been declining. Part of the appeal of Christ is that He called us to live differently. That's not a bad thing. It doesn't mean that we are better than anybody else.

I'm rambling. So I'll stop.

Grace and Peace