I shifted in my seat uncomfortably, my anxiety a bilious mass in the depths of my insides. There were three of us being interviewed for church membership that rainy Monday evening. Huddled in the church fireside room with the pastor, we were asked to describe our “come to Jesus” moments and what it meant for us to be committed followers of Christ.
Then we had to verbally agree with various statements, such as: “I believe there is one living and true God, eternally existing in three persons;” “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s son, who paid the price for my sin;” “I will be an active participant in a life group;” “I will tithe regularly.”
I had been attending the church for about six months; after my husband and I got married, I relocated to where he had been living. Naturally, I started going to his church, and after a few months I felt the need to be more intentional in my attendance. I wanted to belong.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. The church membership process was all very official. I believed in all these things, and I was already doing everything expected of a church member. So why did formally agreeing to it make me so uneasy?
Signing your name on the dotted line, agreeing to a code of conduct or a statement of beliefs, saying yes to something or someone: it means you’ve bought in. You’ve decided on it; you’re serious, and if you step out of bounds, your integrity is on the line. But the scariest part of all is that people will start to depend on you. Your presence is no longer arbitrary, it’s essential.
Those of us who belong to the millennial generation are particularly reluctant to formally commit. In Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials, David Kinnaman says millennials “want to wander the world, both in real life and in digital ways. They want to feel untethered. There is a trend among young adults of delaying the pressures of adult life as long as possible; they want to embrace a lifestyle of risk, exploration, and unscripted moments.”
Church membership is the definition of tethered.
The only other church I’ve officially belonged to was my parents’ church. It was something that was automatically granted to me when I got baptized as a teenager, so I didn’t feel any kind of responsibility in my membership.
I attended another church for the majority of my 20s, but I never became a member. On Sundays, I would come late and leave early. Eventually I started going to young adult groups and Bible studies, but I essentially saw church as something that existed for me, rather than something I could contribute to and serve. I attended because I wanted to get something out of it. I wanted to be spiritually fed, to be entertained, even.
I might as well have listened to a sermon podcast on Sunday mornings.
Nothing substantial was really asked of me during my time at this church. Leadership opportunities passed me by. I was oblivious to the underlying tensions in the church, to what its needs were and how they were being addressed.
I enjoyed all the benefits of church without the sacrifice of belonging to the community. Being a member of a church is drastically different than attending one, even if in practice, the two are often indistinguishable.
As I sat in the church fireside room, I felt the weight of the responsibility of commitment. I knew, by formally agreeing to be part of the church, my presence there was imperative. I was no longer allowed to be semi-available or passively involved. By saying yes to membership, I was agreeing to the fact that I am called to contribute and to dedicate myself to supporting the church and its ministries, despite my discomfort, despite my natural inclination to remain untethered and free.
In the last year and a half since becoming a member, church activities have slowly crept their way into my schedule. I’ve been asked to serve in a number of different capacities (and I’ve agreed with varying levels of resistance). I’ve even signed myself up to do a few things.
Though at times it is a sacrifice, the rewards are rich. And in fact, I’ve begun to fall in love with my church. I’ve seen a glimpse of what true community looks like, as described in Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” I have been intricately connected to the church’s fibres of hurt and healing, of sorrow and celebration.
My husband and I have gone through a really tough time these past few months. But through it all, people from our church have been there, praying, loving, hugging, supporting. Of course, membership isn’t required for these things to happen, but it’s all the richer because of it. Because my husband and I are (literally) around all the time, people know us. They know our worries and our joys.
In the past year and a half, I’ve felt the trepidation and humility of being part of the team that nominates elders for our church council. I’ve been able to share in the joy of someone’s renewed faith and his discovery of the character of God. As a youth leader, I have cheered on my girls at their school plays and band concerts, while modeling what it means to follow Jesus.
Because I made the step to commit, to allow myself to be known and be part of things, I have been able to receive love from God’s people. I have also been able to receive the reward that comes from giving. And as a result, the heart of God has become just a little bit clearer.
My church — any church — is far from perfect. There are politics, there is hypocrisy. There are theological differences and personality clashes. But it’s how God has chosen to bring his hope and healing to this world. So if I need to tether myself to it, then so be it. I’m all in.