What are people joining when they join a church, anyway?

Confessions of a young, churched baby boomer: 10 signs the world has changed
Part 6 of a series

Jan. 15, 2023

By Rev. Rick King

At Falcon Heights, we’ve been grappling with what the term “membership” means in a church for several years now.

Is it a status, like having one’s name on an official list, kind of like memberships in other organizations or clubs?

If so, what are the expectations of members? We don’t have dues to pay; we invite people to make a financial commitment in the form of pledging and offerings. But we don’t charge dues, and we’re not a fee-for-services organization.

And in a church that strives to be inclusive in who can be part of the community, the expectations for how people live their lives can get murky. In the UCC there’s a saying: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”

And if you add to this the fact that in our pluralistic society there’s no “Christian DNA” that gets passed down the generations through American culture, as in the past—how do people even know what they’re signing up for when they become part of a church?

They don’t. At least, that’s not guaranteed.

Conservative, evangelical churches are experiencing the same thing: people in the wider society don’t know what they’re converting TO when they become Christians. But the assumption a lot of Christian leaders have is that people still DO know what it means to be a Christian.

People who see me for spiritual direction/companionship who are unaffiliated, atheist/agnostic have clearly sought out someone who does what I do because they are definitely ON a journey of awakening. And their journey takes some of them to churches like ours: open places without a lot of hoops to jump through. And the ones who grew up with abusive, hurtful, or absolutely no experience of organized religion have lots of good questions.

One of the things churches like us need to get better at is A) not assuming people know anything about Christianity; and B) getting clearer about what our core values are. What’s important to us for individuals and for healthy spiritual community? Is it OK for us to actually have expectations of congregants? What does it mean to love God and neighbor, or to follow Jesus? What does that look like?

How would YOU answer these questions—for yourself and for others?