Last year the Christian Courier published a column called “How a Church Found Us.” The column begins with author, Brent van Staalduinen, describing the way he and his wife were accepted into a church in Kuwait. Though never asked to sign any papers, they were “welcomed across a threshold to a home that knows we are family even before we do.” He adds that back in Canada, they have been “welcomed into another joyful, dynamic congregation that never asks us to sign anything or prove our theological mettle.” The article ends with the author describing a phone call from a Christian Reformed congregation he’d once attended asking him what he’d like done with his papers.
I can appreciate how odd it must be to get a phone call from a church you barely remember, asking what to do with papers you did not know existed. I can also sympathize with the person making the call. I have been in the room while elders struggled to do right by people with whom they had lost contact. I also know that elders do not always choose the best words when making calls like this one. Even well meaning elders can make it sound like they are more concerned with paper work than with people.
There is, of course, there is no such thing as “papers,” but the persistence of that way of speaking suggests something about the way we see church membership. Membership is having your name on a list somewhere. I know that is over simplified, but that idea can be seen in the church order’s provision for retaining memberships of people who move to locations where there is no Christian Reformed Church (article 67) and in people’s pleas to leave their names on the list even though they have moved far away. “How a Church Found Us” questions whether this approach is up to the challenge of a highly mobile society where people move from country to country and church to church. It also suggests that there might be a more fruitful approach.
In one of the rare time this issue was discussed at classis, I remember a pastor who said that his approach was to “give pastoral care to those who come.” That approach also raises lots of questions, but I think it points us in the right direction. We’d all like to be part of a fellowship that warmly welcomes people as they arrive and also blesses them when they move on.
I agree that "membership papers" may be a thing of a past generation, but the fact is we still have them in the CRC Church Order. Does anyone have a better approach? What can be done in such a transient society where denominational ties are weakening and where moving to other communities seems inevitable? I would doubt the CRC is ready to drop the concept of membership at this point.
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