Thursday, June 24, 2010

Too Hard and Too Easy

For a long time I have been thinking that we make it too difficult to become Lutheran and too easy to remain a Lutheran.  Now some of you are probably scratching your heads about now, but let me explain.  I know of Lutheran congregations and Pastors who require 26 weeks or more of instruction prior to membership (that is 26 weeks of 90 minute classes).  In other words about 40 hours of in depth instruction is required before you cross the threshold.  I am not sure where some of these folks live but I know that I would have a tough time getting even pious families to attend 26 Wednesdays from 7-8:30 pm.  I have shifted my instruction into fewer blocks but larger blocks of time (the introduction to Lutheranism is from 8 am - 3 pm on a Saturday).  I wonder if we are not placing barriers here that are simply beyond what many people can do even though they would like to become Lutheran.  The emphasis among traditional Lutherans has always been great preparation but the weakness has always been the follow through after membership.

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.


Bill S. said...

The Missouri synod churches need something like the RCIA. There needs to be not just an easier entry, but a program of assimilation. There needs to be, as you pointed out, ongoing catechisis within each parish.
As for the falling membership problem, as an adult convert I can tell you that many adults--Christian or not, have no idea what a Lutheran church teaches. I thought, based on the couple of ELCA churches that I had known, that Lutherans were just another liberal/social gospel oriented church like the UCC, United Methodist etc.
It came as a bit of a shock to find the conservative Missouri congregations in my area. I never would have found them if I hadn't bumped into some members from them on an Internet forum.

Janis Williams said...

Bill S.,

As an adult convert to Lutheranism also, I agree. My husband and I had done some "homework" on Lutheranism, and were both surprised to find that Missouri is NOT the ELCA.

Entrance for us was fairly simple; we've always been, as Fr. Peters calls them, "pious" Christians, active in the churches in which we were involved. We probably would have attended 26 weeks, if required! Staying in would be easy for us; we wouldn't have to "do" anything. As former Baptists, however, we weren't raised that way.

I'm not advocating the shame-on-you guilt-trip at which Baptists excel. I think there needs to be something like the RCIA, also. In addition, is there something we're missing when we catechize our youth? Are we sending some signal that Confirmation is the finish line? It seems to me that if we get our children involved immediately in continuing catechesis, it won't be so difficult to keep them in. Adults who've been away for 32 years are "hard sells."

I think all of us who feel as Fr. Peters need to pray for and encourage others, and make sure we're continuing catechesis, too. Blesssedly, Christ can do all things; He can enliven the most self-satisfied.

Terry Small said...

Another thought provoking post, Pastor. I have taught a 9-12 week new member course for years, adjusting the length to meet the needs of the class, then, after receiving them into membership, continuing for another 12 weeks to study the Divine Service. This enabled the new member to come to the Lord's Table in a timely manner, but also helped the new member become acquainted with the pattern of ongoing catechesis of the Christian who gladly hears and learns God's Word.

Pr. Chris Hinkle said...

I think that the high instructional hurdles for membership are rooted in the idea that congregations are groups of people who believe the same things and that the altar at which one communes declares one's faith. As a result, we expect new members to carefully examine what we believe and teach.

Carl Vehse said...

How about a Lutheran license that needs to be renewed every few years with an eye exam to see whether the person's orthodox vision and confessional reactions are still good enough to recognize common doctrinal signs and potentially heterodox conditions. The test will also see if the person's Lutheran reflexes are sufficient to keep them from veering off the road into methobapticostal contemporary worship services or over the cliff into the Tiber or Bosporus River.

A learner's permit would require the person have Luther's Small Catechism with him whenever he's outside church or adult catechism class.