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Church membership: losing the plot

19 May

I attended a funeral service yesterday. These are always sad times that offer reflection on the life left before that inevitable appointment.

This particular funeral bewildered me and was a point of reflection beyond the usual sombre disposition associated with death. The deceased had his “church” service conducted at the cemetery. What is the big deal, you may be asking. Well this was not a criminal or church exile that had no home church being buried. He had been a regular congregant at his local church.

Along the way though, he met the woman that became his wife and they wed in a church different from his own. It may seem this disqualified him from a final procession through the church he had been loyal to up to his demise.

He was Catholic and the wife a member of the United Church of Zambia (UCZ). I am sure all other churches aside from the two mentioned have their own set of rules governing membership and eligibility.

I agonised as I thought about this scenario. Do I need to reflect on my church “loyalty” and membership or end up stranded even though I will have no idea? Or is there something fundamentally wrong with this episode I witnessed?

There is something amiss. Granted every church needs to register its members and for various purposes keep their database. Whether it is for support in critical times, discipleship, activities or financial reasons, this is a necessary undertaking.

Over time I feel and now believe the motivation may have changed. If a member who has made it a point to be a regular at church ends up not being accepted in church for his funeral service, something is not right. There will be several questions posed. Was he aware that his membership status was compromised? Was the church accepting his tithes or time when he volunteered for activities? What spiritual support did he get being a member of the church? I’d find it immoral and unthinkable if he offered himself, his time, resources and the church took this without reluctance. All this only to be dumped in death and accorded a farewell by a Priest at his graveside.

It brings me to the thought on the essence of a church. In the context of this discussion, church refers to denomination and/or community of christians. Not necessarily the global family of Christ’s followers which is a collective entity.

People come together in Christ and make one family. Their unity of purpose and intersection is Christ, a result of their salvation and acceptance into the family of God.

Over the centuries, several denominations have arisen, all differing on various aspects of theology, beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. The climax is the number of churches we see today. From the traditionally old Catholic Church that has existed for as long as some of us can remember, we have several protestant churches, cults and whatever forms denominations have taken.

The Bible clearly highlights that we are all different parts of one body. Therefore, we all play a critical part in this body, commune for our edification and also support others that need us.

That is the ideal. But when membership takes the twist cited in this blog, we have a challenge. A person joins a community to enjoy and be a part of a support system for their growth. Their growth likewise offers opportunity for the entire body to also benefit more people, even those outside the immediate environment.

Therefore, the cardinal thing is one’s spiritual welfare. The core responsibility of a christian is winning souls and turning them to Christ. This primary role matters far much more than church politics or technicalities. As such, when one in our midst passes on having been a member of our church, there should be no technicalities. All that will matter then is a joyful send off of a brother or sister that has come to the end of his/her journey having served their purpose.

Death is the last act and in death status is rendered irrelevant. The only opportunity one has to turn to God is when they are alive. In death, nothing we do can alter the deceased’s spiritual condition. It then becomes so saddening and trivial to make an issue of membership at such a time.

In a case like this one, it is even sadder as it involves a person regular at church. It suggests he was known, a part of the bigger family. How then can an issue of where he wedded matter? In addition, how does the UCZ also state that they cannot hold a service in their church because their member is the wife?

The church as it is today loses opportunities to win people over to Christ. Simply because of inattention to the ultimate mission of christianity and the church.

Several people walk into church every week with a host of issues, in need of comfort, direction, guidance and salvation. I know this well because at several points in my life, I have needed and still yearn for that timely support system to get me through. We all have a void to be filled, usually ultimately by something higher than ourselves. None higher than God.

Today though when we walk into churches, that opportunity to reach out to the seeker is lost. Lost in egoistic preachers obsessed with their eloquence, perhaps materialism disguised as blessings and the only way to see God at work or even sermons bordered fully on national politics. All these have their place but they are not the core. The focus remains Christ and each time one stands in the pulpit, the motivation must be to present the all important message of salvation.

I left that funeral heavily burdened and wondering whether we have our focus in the right place. How does marriage ostracise you in death? How does a church that ought to be family take your time, resources and commitment but deems it unfit to have your funeral within its walls? How does a church recognise your spouse and not you even when they are aware you are married?

As I sauntered away from the cemetery, I wondered what impression was made on a bystander that may have attended that funeral service and knew about the unfortunate politics surrounding that burial. If I were the one on the verge of a decision, I know I’d not be looking at the two churches for a home. What should have been an opportunity to bring people to Christ was wasted on trivia.

All church administrations ought to review their membership criteria and open themselves more to new members especially those silent troubled souls that visit quietly with a view of finding elusive meaning in their lives.

In the end, doctrines, church politics, eligibility rules or biases will not matter. Only one’s status in Christ will matter.

As long as churches do not reflect that in the way they conduct their affairs or manage their members and visitors, a great opportunity to present Christ is lost. Not only for the individual but even those people around that witness this unfortunate situation like I did.

There is a far much bigger cause for the church than pettiness. We must wake up to that reality now.

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Posted by on May 19, 2012 in Religion and faith

 

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