“Membership has its privileges” is an advertising slogan made famous by American Express. You may remember some of the commercials full of exotic vacations, multi-course gourmet meals and the like. The commercials would usually end with the slogan “Membership has its privileges.” The implication, of course, was certain things were available only through the use of the American Express credit card. So if you wanted to get in on all the rewards, you had to be a “member.”
Some of you already know where I’m heading, don’t you?
Yes, some religions/churches/denominations/associations/movements–pick your favorite term or add one of your own–tend to treat membership in their communities much like American Express. “If you want to go to heaven–and avoid hell–we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom of religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom from religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want rockin’ music, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want that “old-time religion” complete with the “smells and bells,” we’ve got what you need.” “Heck, we’ve got both rockin’ music and smells and bells in the same service.” “If you want the most intelligent/thoughtful/caring/entertaining pastoral staff around, we’ve got what you need!” Then based on these and other considerations, people make their decisions as to whether or not to join these communities.
And then we wonder why many of these folks act like consumers once they “join the club.”
What I mean by that last comment is that in a desperate attempt to increase our numbers and cash flow, some churches don’t share–as Paul Harvey used to say–“the rest of the story.” For me, the rest of the story is simply the privilege of being a member of any community of faith is the responsibility which comes with learning how to live, love, learn, and “be” together, as well as do our part to transform our communities and world as part of that particular community of faith. For it is through those very processes that we, too, are transformed.
That’s right; the privilege of membership in any community of faith–“official” or not–has nothing to do with reserving our sweet seats in the afterlife by saying the “right” words about God and Jesus, baptismal vows, confessions, having voice and vote in congregational matters, dropping a few–or several thousand–dollars in the offering plate, or even holding elected offices in the church. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with holding beliefs about God, Jesus, an afterlife, baptism, or confessions. And Goddess knows we need spiritually and emotionally mature people to help fund, guide and make decisions in our communities of faith.
At the same time, being part of a community–any community–is not a spectator sport. There are times when we need rest, support and healing, and there are times when we provide opportunities for rest, support and healing for others who need it. There are times when we are fed, and there are times when we do the feeding. There are times when we need to be held in our pain, and there are times when we hold others in theirs’. There are times when we want to share our successes with others, and there are times when we celebrate the successes of others.
To me, this type of giving and receiving is what it means to live authentically in community, and it has the power to transform not only us, but the world as well. And the privileges of membership don’t get much better than that, now do they?
Besides, if there is an afterlife, something tells me God doesn’t take American Express…