During most of my time at UBC, both as a layperson and pastor, I was an advocate for not having a formal system of membership. I thought this was a corrective against the elitism and exclusivity that church membership often creates in more traditional churches. The idea was that if there were no official members or “non” members, then a sense of belonging and connection was open to everyone who walked through the doors, regardless of their “status” within the community. In theory this was a revolutionary concept. In practice, though, it actually reinforced a culture of insiders and outsiders. The only difference was that there was no mechanism whereby an “outsider” could become an “insider,” or at least where they could feel like they belonged.
The assumed antidote for this was Mi Casas and other small groups, which did go a long way in creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for many people. But there was always a strange phenomenon at work: For a long time, just about everyone at UBC assumed there was an “in group,” but hardly anyone believed they were a part of it. We all could point to another group of people as the “insiders,” a group who conversely assumed that we were the insiders. Everyone seemed to be envious of everyone else’s imaginary status. And this was without a formal system of membership.
What wasn’t imaginary was that there was always one subset of people who were asked to serve on Leadership positions. Regardless of how theologically and demographically diverse this group was, they always seemed to be those who had some sort of relationship with a pastor or someone else on Leadership Team. The result was that those who were known remained known, and those who were unknown had few ways of being known. Over time I began to believe that a formal system of church membership could help remedy this.
I now see church membership, regardless of how outdated it may seem, as an important institution that makes accountability, transparency and discipleship more likely to occur within a church community. It is a ritual that makes individual followers of Jesus accountable to a local body of believers, and a local body of believers accountable to the individual followers of Jesus that makes it up.
But I didn’t go into the process of discerning whether church membership was a good fit for UBC with any of that as a given. The team of UBC’ers I assembled to talk through the process, which consisted of a wide theological and demographic spectrum of people, entered the process with one question in front of us—Should UBC institute a formal membership policy?
(As an aside– Even though this group was very diverse in its makeup, one thing it didn’t consist of was someone who had been a part of the “insider” group for a long time, which I think becomes important later on.)
I made it clear from the beginning that if after several meetings we determined that formal membership was not a good fit for UBC, then there would be no problem with us calling it a day and walking away from the idea altogether. At no point during that early discernment period was it ever a foregone conclusion that we would continue the process. There were numerous valid points made both for and against formal membership, and at least a couple on the team were torn on the subject. For me, the moment that tipped the conversation in the direction of pursuing a formal membership policy was when Rachel, the lone undergraduate in the group and an honors student working on a thesis about church membership, spoke about conversations she had been having about the subject with some of her friends.
She said that few people in her demographic wanted us to have a formal system of church membership. They loved that UBC was a place they could ease into and out of without traditional strictures dictating an appropriate level of commitment. She then went on to say that she believes this is the very reason we needed to move forward to create a formal membership structure. She reflected on how fickle college students can be, and that a church should take their opinions into account, but it should never be the tipping point for a conversation. She also believed it would be a countercultural move, something that UBC valued.
It was always in our DNA to be countercultural. In the mid-1990’s, it was a countercultural move in Waco, TX, the Baptist “mecca” and home to some of the most institutional forms of Christianity in the world, to have a church without rules and procedures for membership. It was a statement about who we were and what we wanted to be.
But almost two decades later, the cultural tide had changed. The rise of “universal pastors,” those preachers who write books, appear on CNN and hold yearly conferences to further their particular brand, created a world wherein commitment to a local body of believers became passé. Evangelical megachurches have created a culture where its leaders don’t even care about the long term commitment of its people outside of attending church on Sunday mornings. Couple all this with a reluctance of younger generations to commit to anything long term and you get a world where everyone receives their spiritual guidance and identity from numerous disparate people, leaders and theologies, rather than from the soil of a local church.
(This is not to say the much-maligned “millennial generation” doesn’t show passionate dedication to a cause. In fact, they are perhaps the most committed generation since World War II. They just don’t see the point of committing themselves for a long period of time to any one ideology or group of people.)
The result of this has been a church culture that requires very little of its people, except for attendance and giving. (If that.) Discipleship is seen as an option for the few, rather than an expectation for everyone.
After listening to Rachel speak, we knew that creating a vibrant system for church membership was one of the most countercultural things we could do. So we decided to move forward.