church words: member

by Winn Collier

pews-and-stained-glass

I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William.                         {Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I insisted the whole affair was a formality offering no more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to craft our own clichés.

The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort. Families require us to make difficult decisions about priorities, budgets and lifestyle. Neighborhood gardens need a plan for when folks plant seeds and pull weeds. This fact shouldn’t surprise us because it is woven into the way of the universe. Those who are supposed to know tell me that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics insists that most every substance left to itself degrades over time, naturally.

My life with Miska is the most natural, hand-in-the-glove, reality I know. We certainly have made a practice of life-on-life. You could even call us organic lovers if you like. But I’ll tell you – this marriage gig is work, and it requires a kind of radical commitment best represented by solemn vows spoken before God and pastor and State and every witness who hears us say I do.

St. Paul spoke of life in Christ’s Church as one where we are all members of one body. We’re fixed to one another. We share space and blood and history. We don’t get to walk away from the other members. To do so would require a violent severing; and after, we’d only shrivel and die. My wife Miska says that this is one of the beauties of family – you don’t get to choose who your family is, and you can’t, in the end, finally walk away.

While the wise apostle helped to reform my wayward views, Wendell Berry probably helped even more. In his novels, you get a picture of a community bound by history and heritage and land to a particular place and story. This bond makes them who they are. The neighbors who settled in his fictitious landscape are known as “the membership of Port William.”

I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our cities as locals where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates, dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long narrative, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; it is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious amalgamation of misfit souls. As Wendell says, ”Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”

When Hannah Coulter found herself gathered into the membership, without judgment or resistance for the fact that she was a late-comer, she described the grace she received. “They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere.” We all do.

 

image: canjosh

 

20 Responses to “church words: member”

  1. Chelsea January 17, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    “The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort…”

    I’ve found this to be so true in the past few months of my life. The transition out of high school, where friendship and that sense of togetherness are practically forced upon you, and into the “real world” where I haven’t seen a friend in weeks because we work opposite schedules. It’s saddening. Relationships in family, friends, church, they all take so much more effort than I had ever realized. But it’s worth it.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Winn Collier January 17, 2013 at 4:49 am #

      those transitions can toss you, for sure. but the friendships can catch you.

  2. Kelly Chripczuk January 17, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Sharing this with our young church’s leadership team as as we move toward defining membership (though of course we’ll have to come up with some newer more catchy term for it ;)). Great reflections and I love the way Berry’s soft, subtle stories can work on a soul.

  3. Lisa Girard January 17, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    “…I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our cities as locals where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates, dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long narrative, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; it is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious amalgamation of misfit souls….”

    Me too! Thank you!

  4. Rebekah Grace January 17, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    It’s June 2010. I have, for the first time in nearly three decades, begun attending a church, but it’s in a school so it’s not quite the same as “church” from “before”. I’ve been going every Sunday since the Sunday before Easter and now am volunteering in the office. This day in June 2010 the pastor and I get into a disagreement – he wants me to become part of a small group; I try to tell him how much safer I feel in the larger group for now. He doesn’t let up. I leave. I don’t return. Grace is uncommon.

    It’s August 2011. I’ve been unemployed for over 4 years. God has been doing quite the number on me, outside of the church building. I need a job. I want to help others. My interview with our local mission shelter is just the ticket. It starts out with their asking me to read the Mission’s mission and job description/requirements. The mission of the Mission is church membership and/or attendence required for employment. I should have stood up to leave then. I didn’t. Upon my finishing reading the paper the woman asked me if I had any questions. “No. But I do have a statement.” “Yes.” “I don’t go to church.” “Well who is Jesus Christ to you?” And the job interview transformed into a religious interrogation. I cried crocodile tears and toddler snot on my drive home. The woman called the next day, as if she hadn’t already done a bang up job. I let it go to voicemail, she left a message asking me to strongly consider finding a church. I never called her back. Grace is uncommon.

    • Winn Collier January 17, 2013 at 10:26 am #

      Your story makes me hurt. I’m so sorry. These arm-twisting, bean counting (dis)graces obviously have nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of membership I’m referring to. No one in their right mind would want to belong to such a thing. I hope you found – or have found already – your belonging people.

      • Rebekah Grace January 17, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

        Thanks, Winn. I have not, actually. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been given some incredibly great people who have heaped grace onto me, but they are online and thousands of miles away. But God is faithful and I continue to seek Him and know Him and the other will fall in place when it’s time. I’m skittish to try again, hate to say it but it’s true.

  5. bill elliff January 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    very, very good post, my friend.

    • Winn Collier January 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

      thank you, Bill (speaking of ‘the pastor’ who hears our wedding vows…)

  6. John January 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    ‘it is itself the good work’…worth the price of admission right there. Thanks, Winn.

  7. Diana Trautwein January 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    Love this, Winn. And love the idea of a ‘rule of life’ for a community. We do membership, of course – we are not a start-up, there is a constitution and everything! But many people never join. And they are welcome, they are part of us, voting privileges or not.

    I’m curious as to how it works out in the nitty-gritty. We recently visited a local church, about 35 years old, begun by two brothers, both new believers at the time, and avid surfers. They wanted a hang-loose attitude and their church is wildly successful, at least in numbers – probably the largest in our town. But the Sunday we visited, they read – out loud, in worship – a letter announcing the recent affair between two members of a worship team, describing the discipline they would now be under and asking for prayer. In a worship service. I was told it happened this way because they do not have members, therefore no ‘list’ to send this information to – therefore, it needed to be announced at the weekly gathering. Excuse me? That was a really hard one for me.

    Belonging is important – not in an I’m-in-and-you’re-out sort of way, but because you choose to be together for the work of the kingdom. This information, to my mind, if it needed sharing beyond the leadership team at all, should have gone into a letter to the membership – but of course, they had none. So…how do you manage the day-in-day-out work of the ‘institution’ (and that’s what we all do become, in one way or another) without membership? Do you have more info on this topic at your website?

    • Winn Collier January 17, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

      well, that made for an interesting morning, I’m sure. there’s a little bit of stuff on our site, but we probably would be much help on those kinds of details. They’re important, but thankfully we’re still able to operate more familial right now. We’re small and not wildly successful.

  8. Jess January 19, 2013 at 5:36 am #

    Absolutely! I love this, and may be the very reason I love my own little church, for the way that they have weathered life together; ” the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious amalgamation of misfit souls.” Perfect!– THIS is the church.

    • Winn Collier January 19, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

      I love my own little church too, Jess. We should hold on to them.

  9. Brianna January 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    I attend a relatively new church plant, and though we’ve opted for a different name (partnership), we recognized the need for a way for people to commit to something bigger than themselves. We want people to have a way to say, “This is my spiritual home. I belong here.” Not everyone will take that step, and that’s ok, but I think it’s a helpful way for people to feel like they’re more than just flitting in and out of a building. Appreciated your words on this.

    • winn collier January 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Of course, Brianna, if you don’t use the actual word, then it doesn’t count…

      OK… seriously… I’m not even talking so much about the formal steps as I am about the reality of things. Being part of the church is more something grace does to me than it is something I make happen. And I’m thankful for that. I’m tried of trying to make things happen.

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