At this summer’s PC(USA) General Assembly, I was frequently asked the question “What church do you belong to?” This question always gave me some pause, and I’m not sure I ever figured out the best way to answer, other than saying “Which one?” At the moment, I belong to four different church communities with varying degrees of “membership.”
The Four Churches I Love
- Faithbridge Presbyterian Church. On paper, my connection here is strongest, but in actuality and function, the connection here is the most tenuous. Faithbridge is the church I was a member of when I entered the ordination process, and therefore the church I remain “under care” of until after seminary. That said, we now live 1,500 miles away from this church, have no family and few connections there, and I haven’t heard from my “session liaison” in well over a year. Faithbridge played a large part in my decision to enter ministry (for which I’m eternally grateful), but it’s hard for me to consider myself a “member” there, even though of all four churches, this is where my membership officially resides.
- Middlesex Presbyterian Church. This is where my family attends every Sunday morning in New Jersey, and we are “affiliate members” here. I consider the pastor here, Dr. Neal Presa, as “my” pastor, and the congregation is an extended family that looks out for and cares for me and my family, and we participate actively in the life of the church. However, even though this church is a lot closer than Faithbridge, we still live 45 minutes away, making it hard to engage with the community throughout the week. We spend long chunks of time away from this church in the summer and over the Christmas holidays–some of the most important times in the life of a church. I also realize that this is a temporary family for us, as my time at seminary will come to an end, and we have no deep roots or family in New Jersey.
- First Presbyterian Church of Second Life. This is the online community I helped organize a little over a year ago that meets in the virtual world of Second Life. It is probably the most cutting-edge and innovative of all my church communities, and there is a great excitement among those who participate. My wife and I can participate in this church wherever we travel, and even worship together when we are in separate cities. There is a very real, very embodied community in this church, that has deepened my faith and my relationship with others. However, because our denominational polity still lags behind the technology, this church cannot yet be recognized as an “official” church, and there is no way (yet) for my children to actively participate with us. Many members of this community are also members at other, geographically-based churches.
- First Presbyterian Church of El Paso. This is the church where I’m currently serving as a summer pastoral intern. On one hand, this church is entirely new to me and to my family (and has been very welcoming), but on the other hand, El Paso is my hometown, where my wife and I grew up, met, and married. We have more family here than anywhere else, and will almost certainly return here after seminary. I am not a member of First Presbyterian, bu t shortly after my arrival, I was given two things: An email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a very professionally made and nice-looking hard-plastic, magnetic name tag. These things may sound trivial, and yet one (the name tag) is traditionally recognized in church culture as an unofficial sign of membership, and the other (the email address) is a clear and certain hallmark of membership in the digital culture of my generation. For this and many other reasons (like the fact that the pastor is a former college English professor, and that the father of my high-school best friend is an elder here) I feel very much “at home” here.
Serial Monogamy vs. Polygamy
While monogamous relationships have long been the ideal in Western culture, many sociologists have noted the recent trend toward “serial monogamy” – in other words, people are likely to have multiple amorous relationships over the course of a lifetime, but in sequence, not all at once. Church membership has seen a similar trend: For most, the era where a person might be baptized, married, and buried all in the same church community is long gone. Still, in the 20th century, church members were generally committed to only one church at at time in a given location – serial monogamy.
So does that make me a polygamist when it comes to my own church membership? Am I “cheating” on the church where my membership resides by seeking to fulfill spiritual needs elsewhere, or by contributing my time & talents elsewhere? Perhaps this is where the metaphor breaks down, but I do feel a certain guilt in the fact that I “need” not just one alternate church community, but no less than four!
Each of these church communities, to some degree, offers something necessary and good for my faith journey. I like to think that I have something to contribute to each of them as well. And yet all also have shortcomings – yes, all churches have “shortcomings” but here I do not mean the sort that results from human failing or lack of effort – the shortcomings in this case are all hurdles of geography, technology, or institutional structure. They are shortcomings for which no solution currently exists, other than “polygamous” or at least “promiscuous” notions of church membership.
Toward Post-Modern Membership
So, in case you hadn’t noticed yet, fixed boundaries are rather difficult for those of us who grew up in a post-modern world, and classic notions of membership seem to be built on expectations of exclusive fealty. Contrast this with membership in the very post-modern world of the internet: I have “officially joined” facebook, twitter, Second Life, Google, Wikipedia, FourSquare, Presbymergent, BrightKite, Amazon.com, Ebay, ReverbNation, Pandora, YouTube, Yelp, and hundreds of other “social networks.” In fact, I was required to join each of them before I could “fully” participate in the life of their respective communities. This is a fixed boundary of sorts. And yet it is fluid: None of them seemed to object to my membership in of any of the others — in fact, the really smart (and successful) ones have found ways to actually help me integrate my participation accross platforms so that the unique strengths of each community can benefit the others. This is the paradigm of “membership” that I think most people in my generation embrace, whether consciously or not.
So what would it look like if church membership took a page from the Web2.0 playbook? I think the greatest fear that might be voiced is one against fragmentation and confusion. Promiscuous membership might indeed play into our existing consumerist tendencies. And yet, is “church collecting” really worse than “church hopping?” Another fear might be that members would be “stretched thin” – too involved at too many places to be of any use to one. This is certainly a valid fear. But I think that here again, skillful integration might be the key. Most aspects of our lives are balancing acts to begin with, and church communities that find ways to complement and contribute to one another are more likely to survive than those who prefer their members live in isolated fidelity to one community. I participate in the Amazon.com community far less frequently than I do in the twitter community, but when I need an objective and detailed book review, 140 characters doesn’t quite cut it. But once I find the review, chances are I’ll post a short-link to it on twitter for others to follow — and thus value is added to both communities.
I would love to say that from here I will now ride happily into the sunset with my four beautiful church communities in tow and live happily ever after – but I acknowledge we’re not quite there yet. I suspect that my membership promiscuity still makes some people uncomfortable, in some communities more than others. But I also see hopeful potential in an expanding understanding of “membership” – for me, for my family, and especially for a denomination in dire need of new approaches and new forms of collaboration. After all, the one thing my four church communities have in common is that they all share a common name, “Presbyterian.”
Uh oh. Does that make it an incestuous promiscuous relationship too?
I guess I’d better stop before the metaphor gets “out of hand“…