Is Church Membership Still Relevant?

Catholic priests walk inside the Grotto, believed by Christians to be the birth place of Jesus, at the Church of the Nativity
Catholic priests walk inside the Grotto, believed by Christians to be the birth place of Jesus, at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 20, 2005. [Israelis and Jewish groups mostly praised the election of Pope Benedict XVI, saying he had atoned for his wartime membership in Nazi Germany's Hitler Youth by helping to champion Jewish-Catholic reconciliation. ]

In a world in which a premium is placed on having what we want, when we want it; a society in which we our constantly told that every need can be met, and every problem can be solved; a culture in which we are bombarded with images of false perfection and static idealism; a community in which everyone is expected to remain part of a mobile workforce willing to forgo the growing of deep roots for fear of missing out on opportunities to advance our status: I can think of few things more counter-culturally necessary than joining a church.

Why? Because the church (if done right... a big if, I know) is one of the only places on the planet in which the people around you will tell you that you can't have everything you want, when you want it; every need cannot be met, every problem cannot be solved, and nobody is perfect; idealism is an illusion, and all the upward mobility in the world cannot make you safe and happy.

Church membership is not only relevant for our lives, it is a radical act of defiance to the self-service gods of our culture. A church that does not promise to meet your every need offers you the space to look inside your own soul to the source of what is killing you. This church offers you the opportunity to stop waiting on those around you to provide the quick fix, and to get to work chasing wholeness in a community of people who will chase it alongside you. Only when the church stops providing you the pacifier that keeps you quiet without any real nourishment, will you finally begin to ask the hard questions your soul is calling you to ask.

This kind of church refuses to become a program-happy vendor of religious goods and services. So joining a church like this is deeply subversive. It requires the kind of ego-bending commitment out of which a true soul can be forged. What could be more essential to our sense of self, helpful to our pursuit of wholeness, and basic to human flourishing than to learn how to tell the truth about our lives while living in fidelity to other broken people?

To be fair, churches don't always make it easy. We have to confess that we can make membership obsolete when, like whitewashed tombs, everyone puts on a good show of having it all together. Instead of relating in our weakness, we relate in a false sense of strength. It's counterproductive. Membership in a community that has not yet learned how to be real with each other? Why bother?

Joining a ragamuffin community, however, a church full of broken people who are committed to try and worship Christ in all things? That can be nothing short of miraculous. Don't get me wrong. It will be difficult. You will be disappointed and hurt. You will be let down and disillusioned. Yet, a church that refuses to fix everything for you, to meet your needs, or to provide you with religious goods and services offers a great gift: the chance to grow up, grow healthy, and learn what it means to be human as human was meant to be from the beginning.

I often find myself telling my congregation: everything we need in order to flourish is already here in this church. All it takes is a bunch of followers of Jesus who are willing to try and tell the truth about their lives, and to commit to living in fidelity with one another as they pursue God's kingdom, and miracles can happen. But none of it works without fidelity. None of it moves forward without forgiveness, and bearing with one another in love. When that happens, resurrection happens... new creation happens. It's a thing of beauty. Love is fidelity over time. The church is meant to be a community of love, and it doesn't work without fidelity.

The church is one of the only institutions I know of (along with marriage) in which we are commanded to bear with one another even when other people don't live up to their end of the bargain. That's what a covenantal relationship is all about. A contract says, if you do this, I'll do that. A covenantal says, even if you don't to that, I'll still do this. I'll never stop forgiving, loving, bearing with you because God is like that.