Back in the day when I was in high school and still dating, that phrase or some variation of it was the kiss of death. You were basically saying "I don't want to date you anymore but I don't hate you. Please go away." It indicates an unwillingness to be committed to another person. Within the church it is often viewed the same way. Just being friends is really not good enough. Christians "commit" to one local church, one group of "like minded" individuals Christians united together more by a shared set of values and secondary doctrines than by community and geography. Drive around a suburb in the Midwest or South on Sunday and you will see minivans full of families in their Sunday best, all driving in different directions heading off to "their church", passing other Christians who live near them and other churches that are close to them in favor of the church that is just to their liking. But when the Bible speaks of the church, especially in Paul's epistles, it seems to be directed at all Christians in a particular geographic area (the church in Ephesus, the churches of Galatia) rather than individual local churches as we understand it.
We have been going to a couple of more traditional local churches while trying to figure out what to do, one a super conservative Mennonite church on Sunday evenings and the other a pretty vanilla evangelical church on Sunday morning. We go to that one because it is the closest "church" to us and I just am sick to my stomach when I think about all of the neighbors around our area who drive past one another and half a dozen churches to get to their preferred venue each Sunday. Where we go on Sunday mornings is about a mile from our house (which is a big deal given how sparse the population is around us!) and most of the people who attend live right around us. It is probably not a group I would naturally gravitate to but it is the closest gathering of Christians to us and that is where we go because getting to know and form relationships with our neighbors trumps my discomfort at doctrinal imprecision.
In a lot of ways, this gathering is like so many others we have known over the years. A pretty old population with a scattering of younger families.The facility has capacity for a much larger crowd but turmoil over the years has led to lots of people looking for greener pastures at other churches, notably a large evangelical "magnet" church about half an hour away that draws a very large crowd with high production value meetings. I get it. When you get fed up with the strife of a small church, a large gathering where you can be anonymous has a lot of appeal. This turmoil has happened several times in recent years coupled with some not great hiring decisions and the result is a lot of empty pews with simply heinous bright orange upholstery (they are comfy though!). The pews on one half of the room yesterday, pews that would easily hold 60-70 people, had maybe 4-5 people. So you can imagine the reaction to a family with 8 kids showing up!
The pastor of this group is brand new, I think we attended on one of his first Sundays. This is his first "pastoral calling", prior to this he worked a regular secular job and he is a bit nervous in general and still kind of feeling his way around. I remember that feeling well. It is intimidating and a bit overwhelming to come into a new church with all of the pressure that our church culture places on the pastor (a pressure that I and others willingly and eagerly accepted for sure). He has mentioned he and I getting together for coffee or something this week and I am looking forward to getting to know him outside of "church". We had the chance to speak yesterday during a shared meal with the church after the morning gathering and the topic of "membership" came up.
I am sure it is pretty clear that I have no use for formal church membership. I am hoping it is not a major sticking point as it is in so many other local churches. I am also going to try to not "win" an argument about why I think it is unbiblical and unhealthy but rather to reinforce my desire to be of service to fellow believers in whatever way I can without being required to enter into an extra-biblical tradition. This is a group that certainly can use some help, with an aged population that seems to me, as an outsider coming in, very plateaued spiritually. The open question becomes whether someone who is not a formal member of that church can teach and minister there or not.
A lot of Christians assume that someone who declines to become a "member" of a local church is either anti-authority or afraid of commitment. I suppose those pat answers are easier to handle than grappling with the very real problems with a dogmatic insistence on a formal church membership, not least of which is the utter absence in command or example from Scriptures. I certainly am not "anti-authority" so much as I am concerned with artificial, unscriptural and damaging manmade authority structures being applied to the church. I am also not averse to commitment but I am averse to commitment that excludes others or making an extra-biblical tradition a condition for full fellowship within the Body. Formal church membership divides believers in a geographic area into "my church" and "not my church". I don't care how you parse it or how many annual Easter prayer breakfasts you hold, the net result of formalizing church membership is division. The local church where you place your membership is "your church" and every other gathering of believers is not.
The reasoning that accompanies demands for formal church membership are on pretty shaky foundations, many based far more in pragmatism than Scripture. For example, I have often seem it said that it is unfair to the elders to not have formal membership commitments and covenants because it makes it impossible to know who they are responsible to care for. Set aside for a moment the idea that elders need a list to know who they should be caring for. What is implicit in that idea is that an individual elder is not an elder in the church, he is only an elder of his church. So as an elder I would only be responsible for those people who were also members of my church. Taking that further, an elder would be responsible for someone who lives half an hour away that they see for a couple of hours a week "at church" but not for a Christian who lives around the corner from them. I doubt anyone would come right out and say that but functionally that is how we seem to operate. When I read in the Scriptures I am not sure that is how it worked. When Paul called the elders of the church in Ephesus to come to him, was he calling the elders of individual local churches or all of the men in Ephesus who were recognized by the church as elders? The latter seems more in keeping with the full witness of the New Testament.
So we will see. Our ultimate goal is a more "organic" community sort of fellowship that not only goes beyond Sunday morning meetings but perhaps even eschews them entirely in favor of a more full-time community. Until that comes to fruition or at least starts taking shape, we find ourselves regularly in more traditional settings. For all of the frustration that accompanies the traditional church setting, they are also (to paraphrase the apocryphal statement of Willie Sutton) where the Christians are. Not every Christian is found in a traditional church setting and not everyone (or even a majority) of those in a traditional church setting are Christians but it remains the case even our our rapidly changing post-Christendom culture that Sunday mornings are still the overwhelmingly dominant venue for the church to gather. In the year that we have lived in this area we have met lots of Christians from a pretty diverse spectrum of the church. Far from being a bad thing, this has given us deeper roots in the Christian community all around us and that can only be helpful in finding fellowship, edification and encouragement for ministry. The adventure continues....