Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Membership Has Its Privileges...

We just had our report from the Circuit Delegate to the regional BRFFGGHHIIJJ (whatever the restructuring task force is) and I could spend a few hours talking about the stuff in it and the stuff not in it...

Listed in the document is this statistic... While we claim 2,337,349 "members," we have only 724,873 in worship on a given Sunday morning... or 31%. Actually the percentage may be lower because we do not know how many of those counted in attendance are actually visitors or new people not yet members. Let me state that this statistic is slightly lower but similar to my own parish, though our proximity to Fort Campbell, KY, and the number of activity duty military here mean that we have a higher percentage of "members" living out of state than is the case for the average parish. I am not excusing or justifying but setting a little context.

In my parish, about 60% of the people on Sunday morning are those here every week. About half of the remainder or about 15% are the people who are here most Sundays (at least half of the time), and the remaining 15% are the surprises who show up once in blue moon. I do not know if this is typical or not.

My point, though long in coming, is this. Those irregular attending (or, regularly absent) members are welcomed to the Lord's Table without question -- mostly with relief and thanksgiving when they do show up. We do not especially scrutinize them even though they have been missing in action and we do not know what has been going on with them or their faith. Communion is the "privilege of membership."

When a non-Missourian comes, we scrutinize them (at least those who practice close(d) communion). We inquire about their faith, about their confession, about their baptism, about their repentance, and about their intention. We may make a pastoral decision to commune or we may not. Others may make a decision immediately -- simply on the basis of them not being LCMS. If they come from a sister parish in the LCMS, perhaps the only inquiry might be which parish, who is the Pastor, and are you a member in good standing there.

While I keep membership records, the working membership of my parish are those who are regularly there. Yet, because of membership records, we offer the privilege of membership, communion, to those regularly absent but who happen to show up (say at Christmas and Easter, especially). Why do we treat those who are members -- but regularly not present -- differently than we treat those who are not members but there? What should we do differently, if we should do something differently?

A conversation with a new family indicated a history of problems with family members in two different Lutheran denominations. When the non-Missourians came to an LCMS parish, they were refused communion "because they are ELCA." When the Missourians come to the ELCA parish, they are invited to commune "because they are LCMS." This family is caught in between. "How do you explain it?" she said to me.

My response was that I do not believe it is simply a matter of a piece of paper that says "member." Membership has its privileges but membership is about confession. What do you believe? That is what membership is about. Whether ELCA or Missouri or whatever, your own confession should be the same confession as the church body. If there is a conflict, there is a problem.

I do not police the altar. I do not believe that stewarding the mysteries of God is a police action. It is my task as Pastor to make sure, to the best of my ability, that all who commune are able to receive the full benefit and blessing of that communion and this involves ascertaining their confession (their faith) and the attitude of the heart (their repentance). I do this in several ways. I do this in part through the agency of membership and its incumbent instruction (which should not be once in a lifetime but a lifetime of learning/catechesis). I do this in part through the agency of the creed (and if we confess with the mouth the orthodox faith, I, who cannot discern belief in the heart by any other way than this verbal confession must accept this). I do this in part through the agency of the confession and absolution which prepares us for this communion (again, it is my assumption, and I have no other means to go on, that participating in this general confession and hearing the absolution effects the repentance and restoration which the Word speaks).

So, I find myself in a quandary... do I subject every communicant (especially those regularly absent but "members") to the rigorous examination that would be given to a person from outside our "fellowship" who desired to commune... or do I accept that "membership has its privileges" (even though "membership" here refers more to a name on a piece of paper than confession and faith)... In this respect only , I do understand those who find close(d) communion an irrational practice.

As a kid headed to college, my Pastor came up to me and handed me the gold card -- a paper card with my name typed on it and his signature indicating that I was a member in good standing of a parish of the LCMS. I used it to commune but felt awkward flashing my membership card as if this paper were what made me a worthy communicant instead of my confession and repentance. And since I was in college, how would anyone in that parish (or in my own parish) have known what sort of debauchery I had engaged in without repentance -- as long as I flashed my card at the rail to say "membership has its privileges." I cannot find those cards in the CPH catalog. I guess we don't do that anymore. It was a good intentioned bad idea. Just one more example of the strangeness of some of our practices...

Of course, nearly all of this would be more of a mute point if the vast majority of our "members" were also regular in their worship attendance... but that might be expecting too much... or not...


Jeff Samelson said...

Where does this idea of communing as a "privilege of membership" come from? I've never come across it in our circles (WELS) or in any writings of the former Synodical Conference, so I'm truly curious (I'm not trying to be snide or anything) how the American Express tagline entered into the whole closed communion discussion. (I do recognize the irony with which you use the phrase, but it's apparent there's a reality behind it.)

Anyway, I/we have always considered communing with the congregation to be an act or expression of fellowship, a reflection of an agreement and unity *that already exists*. Since church membership is the primary way in which fellowship is proclaimed, it becomes both a simple and rational outward "standard" for inclusion at the table and a clear and reasonable "standard" for exclusion.

As regards the near- and true delinquent members of the congregation showing up for the Lord's Supper, it is frustrating, but the proclamation of fellowship we have to go on is their continued membership, and our desire for them, of course, is that their faith, their confession, and the bonds of fellowship all be strengthened -- and what better "tool" is there for this than Holy Communion? We Lutherans know its power and purpose better than anyone!

Pastor Peters said...

"Privilege of membership" comes from the nearly uniform reference in the Rite of Receiving New Members where we confer upon those who join the rights of membership including the blessing of the Lord's Supper... I was not necessarily tying this to that except to point out that members are accorded the privilege of being received at the Lord's Table on the basis of their membership while those not members are not accorded the same right (privilege) of membership.

"The Right Rev" said...

I appreciate your assertion that "membership is a confession." How true! I often tell members and inquirers alike that being a member here is stating, "What this church teaches is the same confession that I believe to be true."

My struggles, however, are with the confession of faith of the non-attending member. Being consistently absent from the Table makes a loud statement as to what is really valued and believed.

Pastor Peters said...


Myrtle said...

"Then nature and reason begin to add up our unworthiness in comparison with the great and precious good. Then our good looks like a dark lantern in contrast with the bright sun, or like filth in comparison with precious stones. Because nature and reason see this, they refuse to approach and wait until they are prepared. They wait so long that one week trails into another, and half the year into the other. If you consider how good and pure you are and labor to have no hesitations you would never approach. (LC, Part V, 56-57)

My first impression, when reading the Large Catechism, was that Luther knew anguish of soul; I was not alone!

Sometimes he wrote, as he did here, how it was our nature to compare and find ourselves unworthy and fall beneath doubt and despair. Sometimes he pointed out that we are under the ruthless, merciless, unrelenting assault of the devil and find ourselves bowing beneath his lies, wiles, and trickery. Sometimes he called a spade a spade; we are miserable, wretched sinners who are completely incapable of any good.

I am not so naive as to think that all your absent folk are missing because they are laboring beneath the crushing weight of their sin and fear approaching the alter, but some of us are. Some of us, despite being saved by grace, struggle beneath the weight of the Law, confronted with our sin at every turn.

Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay,
death brooding darkly o'er me,
Sin was my torment night and day;
in sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
my life became a living hell,
so firmly sin possessed me.

My own good works all came to naught.
no grace or merit gaining;
Free will against God's judgment fought,
dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered. (LSB 556, 2&3)

"Dear Christians, one and all rejoice," began Luther in his congregational hymn, speaking of the work of the Cross. But he immediately turned to the anguished soul, fearlessly (in my opinion) writing with raw emotion the toil sin, doubt, and despair can take.

Luther will, as Pastor Weedon wrote on his blog, wrap you up in Christ in more ways than you think possible. I happen to believe he does so because, although he was immersed in the sweet, sweet Gospel, with the wondrous gift of object grace and all that means in our lives, he never forgot his own anguish of soul and the darkness that haunted even him, a cherished child of God.

So, I proffer that, when you think about those delinquent parishioners, you consider that some of them might long to be at the alter as much as you long to welcome them there.

ErnestO said...

Membership might well be noted as Christian first and Lutheran second. Our first life is always a wandering away from God, and our new life of return to God is always a work of undeserved mercy, wrought upon those who greatly need, but never deserve it. (Christ always and purposefully served the undeserved)

Pr. Lovett said...

First time blogger here...
I struggle with this issue a great deal here in Kasas. I serve a moderate (less 100) congregation with family ties to every denomination, most of which are a block and a half away.
This is my tagline, for what it's worth: I never refuse anyone the Sacrament. But I do (even at the rail at times) ask that before a person recieve from me, he or she come to speak with me sometime during the week. I don't know if this is trickery, but I don't think so. I am being faithful (as best I can) to Acts 20:28, paying careful attention to the flock of which I have been made overseer by the Holy Spirit. Still, I'm not policing nor making a judgment of who is welcome and who is not. All are welcome, only some come early in life and others later. And, I'm instructing everyone that the Holy Supper is not a right of membership but an act of the faithful. It is not for just anyone at any given time. But I confess, this is a tremendously difficult topic.
Moreover, what of children (my real passion in regard to the Sacrament). I have just received into membership (there it is!) an former Roman Cath. family whose 10 year old son has been receiving the Holy Supper for at least three years. How can I keep it from him now? If I say, well Rome teaches different, I must ask how different the 10 yr old knows. All he knows is that this is Jesus and it's for him. Except from the Lutherans who say it's only for members of certain mental capabilities. I'm not sure our Lord's words, "Many are called but few are chosen" apply to the Sacrament.
My fervent hope and prayer is that one day we can once again preach before the Introit for an hour or so, expounding upon Holy Writ for all who are interested to hear, and then, after such a sermon, sing a hymn or something while those who are known to the overseer/bishop/pastor remain to recieve the Sacrament, and those who are unknown are excused. Politely, of course, with decorum and maybe a bit of pomp.
Just a thought.