Editor’s note: This article describes the experiences and decisions of Advent Lutheran Church in Arlington, Va., regarding church membership.
The community at Advent Lutheran Church in Arlington, Va., is composed of mainly young adults and empty-nest professionals who work for the government, the military, government contractors or various support organizations. They live in fairly dense neighborhoods around Advent and move out when their families need more space.
Few of them were born here, and their family ties and churches of origin are quite distant. They generally don’t expect to stay in Arlington forever (although some end up being around much longer than they envision), so they’re reluctant to cut their ties to “home.” I liken Advent to campus ministry—we have many dedicated, gifted and energetic people who are with us for only a few years, and a smaller group of long-term faithful folks.
These committed people serve faithfully as worship assistants, on council and in service projects. Although they consider themselves temporary, they are committed in the moment, and they both need and deserve a voice in how resources are used. We do need to hear their discernment in how God is calling Advent. When we found that our constitutional requirements were stymieing these gifts and voices, we felt called to move to a new style of incorporation and governance.
That’s the underlying rationale behind Advent’s movement away from a definition of membership that’s confined by rules and toward one with an approach that allows people to define their commitment and involvement organically.
As Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). People get to set their own boundaries and may choose to be voters and council members based on their commitment to Advent’s mission and ministries.
The congregation council reserves the right to confer those privileges, but people aren’t required to convert or renounce their allegiance to other faith communities—something the term “member” seems to imply for a lot of our people.
In our experience at Advent, for some people the very word “member” doesn’t bring the joy of belonging but rather negative baggage, such as the worry that their families and original faith communities will view it as a rejection of them.
Others fear that formal membership means they’re adopting restrictions on how their faith life will be defined or that they’re signing on to everything Martin Luther wrote, every ELCA statement or every congregational policy.
It’s wonderful if the constitutional requirements for membership work for your congregation. Belonging and commitment are important values. But if member definitions are barriers to service or participation, and they’re not working for you and you’re having trouble envisioning something else, the first thing I lift up is that they’re adiaphora.
This great word refers to things in the church that are helpful but don’t have the power to save or redeem. So if the current governance is edifying in your context, no one is suggesting that you change it. But if your membership definition has ceased to be helpful in building up the faith of your people, as happened at Advent, then it’s not a sin to change it.
We changed our constitution to allow the congregation council to extend voting privileges and council eligibility to those who live lives dedicated to serving Christ at Advent, who are faithful in worship and service, and who are incredibly generous in their investment in the congregation’s mission.
If your membership definition has ceased to be helpful in building up the faith of your people, as happened at Advent, then it’s not a sin to change it.
These people serve on council, as officers, and in all areas of congregational life. One who is on council brings tremendous gifts for detail and a passion for ex-offender ministry. Another brings gifts for event organization and artistic decoration.
Although the vote for our new constitution was unanimous, getting there meant dealing with some pushback, which is still around. One source of anxiety is fear about a “takeover” by theoretical troublemakers, but since council holds the ultimate say on who can vote, that fear has been addressed.
The other pushback comes from the statistics and reporting ministries. They feel the need for hard definitions to fill in the blanks on forms. The parochial report has begun to address this by asking for “active participants.”
Resistance, however, puts us in good company. Moses (Numbers 11:26-30) and Jesus (Mark 9:38-41) got pushback, too, when people who weren’t formal members of their ministry group wanted to participate fully and actively. Both these leaders said, “Welcome,” and we at Advent say, “Welcome”—no hoops, no boundaries.
Just as our faith tells us that God chooses us for God’s kingdom, Advent chooses to extend the franchise without forcing a binary choice on someone who wants to serve the mission of Christ in this place. For them we just say, “Thanks be to God!”