Thursday, June 24, 2010
Too Hard and Too Easy
My point is this. Why do we make the threshold of joining so high and then leave the requirements for remaining so low? Look, in essence we say to pre-teens that if you go through catechism (some offer 2 year, some 1 year, and some just 6 months), you are good to go for the rest of your lives. As long as they were confirmed, we do not require much of anything for them to join the congregation -- not right after their confirmation and not fifty years later -- the satis est of Lutherans for membership is confirmation (preferably youth confirmation). We do not require much more than occasional church attendance and a few bucks in the offering plate and we generally leave these folks alone. We may desire to see them in Bible study or more frequent communion or deeper participation in the life and work of the congregation, but we do not require any of that. We make it difficult to get in and then very easy to stay in.
In my vicarage I received a stack of 3x5 cards of delinquent members that my bishop required me to visit. Never mind he had died months before, I got the cards and made the visits. One angry woman sent me packing by saying even though she did not attend, she paid her dues every month (her exact words). Her dues were rather substantial ($400 per month and that was more than 32 years ago). When I came back to the elders and suggested that we give her the money back and ask her instead to come to worship, I was laughed at and then scolded when they realized I was serious. I have never been in a congregation that felt comfortable saying to the absent member that they need to be there every week. It is like being a parent and having to lay down the law to your kids -- even when we do it, we hate it.
So we require that new folks jump over this great hurdle to join and then we leave them alone to their own devices. Am I the only one that thinks there is something wrong here? Did not Philip baptized the Ethiopian after one conversation? Should we not emphasize ongoing participation in the Eucharistic life of the Church and in Bible study and in the work of the kingdom MORE than simply raising the bar for those who join? I am beginning to think that we should make it much easier to join and much more difficult to remain a member. I am not talking legalistically but fraternally. Surely membership is not merely a name on a roll somewhere. Membership must mean to the folks in the pew that they are weekly to be around the Word and Table of the Lord in His House and weekly together in His Word and weekly a part of the work that God has called us to do as a community of faith. Then it will spread to the new members -- the expectation that initiation into membership is not a hurdle to be jumped but a lifelong process of catechesis, of worship within the community through the means of grace, of learning, knowing, and understanding God's Word, of learning, knowing, and understanding the confessions of our church, and of participation together in the work of the kingdom which goes forth from this place.
Maybe I am being a little stupid here and need a good thump on the head, but I am concerned that much of our failure to attract new people is directly related to our failure to keep the old ones. We make it too hard to join and too easy to remain a member. Again, my point is not some legalistic minimum but the fraternal counsel (not just from the Pastor) that to be a member means deeper levels of participation and commitment than we have been accustomed to expecting. Although a Pastor can teach this, it is the expectation of the people in the pews that will make this work.
Perhaps that is the whole point of RCIA (the Roman Catholic adult instruction and assimilation program). Perhaps that is what I am looking for. I am not sure the shape of it all, but I am sure of one thing. When we set the bar very high to get in but set it very low to remain, we will end up with few people joining and more people members mostly in abstentia.