I've been asked this question a lot: Why bother being an official member of a congregation? What's the point? In today's world, where you can sign up for social media in a minute with an email address and a password, why bother with the actual paperwork it almost always takes to sign up for church membership? (I think a lot of congregations could change the paperwork part up pretty easily, but adjusting to technology in a systemic fashion like that is hard.) Especially since you can attend services just fine without.
There are a lot of reasons for church membership, though. I think a lot of reasons for it are implicit in the differences between spirituality (and its growing popularity) and religion. Both seek a connection to the divine, both explore what's beyond our immediate senses- but spirituality is inherently individual and ultimately isolating, and religion is naturally communal and relationship-based. Therefore religion is messier than spirituality- when your relationship with God is tied up with your relationship with a bunch of other people, none of whom are perfect and perhaps quite a few of whom you don't like, keeping up a relationship with God is harder, because you also have to keep up your relationship with those other people.
And yet Christianity insists on community- where do you think the word "Communion" comes from? We are called by Christ in the two great Commandments to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love one another as God loves us. We see God in each other, because we have each been created in God's image. The Bible is filled with stories of community and rules for community and illustrations of faith through community, and if all that weren't enough, God came down and was one of us to be in community with us, as Jesus Christ. We cannot separate our faith from our community with one another, no matter how hard we try.
So, in recognition of that, we gather in community together in congregations, and we publicly acknowledge our commitment not only to God, but to each other, by maintaining membership in our congregations. By doing that, we acknowledge our needs for mutual support and instruction, care for young and old, sick and downtrodden, and relationships which comfort us in our grief and celebrate with us in our joy.
However, if you prefer a short, practical list of what membership does, here goes.
- Public affirmation of faith.
- To the congregation: by becoming a member, you are telling the other members that you want to worship with them, and you want to support them and be supported by them. There may be some days when you arrive at church and find yourself nurturing someone, there may be days when you're the one being nurtured. By seeking official membership, you're signing up for this.
- To your community: this tells your family and whoever else you tell (coworkers, friends, random people in the grocery store who you're inviting to join you for services- you do that, right?) about it that you've made a decision about your faith, what kind of faith community you want, and where you're going to go (well, one of the places) to grow and mature your faith. Congregations are often known for various traits in a community; often, telling someone where you go to church will tell them quite a bit about your priorities.
- Planning for the larger denomination.
- Membership Numbers: knowing how many members each church has determines a lot of things. The ELCA is broken up into 8 regions; those regions contain 65 synods around the country (and the Bahamas); each synod is broken up into conferences, all for infrastructure and planning purposes. Membership numbers help the ELCA keep up with population trends, and what areas will be needing more pastors soon, and the like.
- Financial Planning: as mentioned below, the denomination has many ministries going on at any one time, and having an accurate idea about membership (and what that membership is interested in!) helps plan the future of those ministries. Some of that planning is, by nature, financial.
- Decision Making: Membership helps the ELCA keep the conferences and synods approximately even in population, which helps when it comes to choosing delegates for the General Assembly. The Assembly makes the major decisions about the direction of the church, and each conferences selects a delegate to go. The delegates vary each Assembly, and are about 40% clergy and 60% lay people.
- Planning for the congregation.
- Time and Talent: look, the Sunday School teachers, ushers, lectors, and committee members have to come from somewhere. You didn't think that worship service or Bible study planned itself, did you? The members of a congregation drive its mission, and its ministry.
- Financial Planning: we get nervous talking about this part, but membership also helps the congregation know where it's going in terms of financial planning. Often, congregations ask members to "pledge" their giving (which just means the member tells the congregation in advance how much they expect to give each year) so they know what resources they have to devote to various ministries in advance. Just as you wouldn't get in the car without your GPS (or a map, at least) for a cross-country trip, congregations can't plan their next few years without an idea of what their budget is going to be.
- Recordkeeping: congregations also keep track of church records- including attendance, funerals, weddings, and other special events. These church records are hugely popular with genealogists, but also used for more prosaic purposes as well, by the congregation itself in understanding their history, and by churchwide in knowing what congregations are up to.
- Decision Making: members can vote in annual and special meetings. These meetings often make major decisions in the life of a congregation, such as which pastor to call, other church staff hiring decisions, and decisions about which ministries to support and how to run them.
Go in peace, love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God!