Who belongs?

Originally published July 10, 2014

In my office, I keep the parish registers, which record the baptisms, confirmations and deaths of everyone who has ever been a part of the life of the parish I serve. The oldest book goes back to the founding of our parish in 1902. Incidentally, we are one of the “younger” Episcopal Churches in West Virginia. Everyone who has ever been a member has their name recorded in these books. Its not exactly the Book of Life, but it is one for which I am accountable. And every year I am called upon to fill out a Parochial Report where I dutifully record the number of “members” as well as those associated with the parish. Anguish over the membership of the parish as well as the wider church is hard to avoid.

And our standards for membership are pretty low really. You have to be at least 16, baptized and recorded in the parish register. To have a voice in parish decisions there’s an additional qualification to have been present at worship and be “known” to the priest. I’ll be honest that after a little while here, I eliminated nearly a hundred “members” from the roles because I had no idea who they were because they’d either dropped out, moved away or died.

So here’s a question. Is the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the Well of Jacob a Christian? Their exchange is recounted in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. Quick recap: Jesus meets the woman and after a short exchange (which is Jesus’ longest recorded conversation, I believe) she goes to her village and recounts her encounter and as the gospel says “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”

She obviously, in this passage, comes to believe that Jesus is in some way the chosen one of God and she goes out to share with any who will listen, her encounter with Him and its impact on her life – so that their lives might be made whole as hers was. She is, it would seem, a dedicated follower of Jesus – and a pretty effective evangelist as well. But she hasn’t been baptized, and she certainly hasn’t participated in communion – since Jesus hasn’t given that particular gift yet in the story. So, is she a Christian or not?

Because I think she illustrates something important about “membership” in the church and some important ways that membership separates itself from being about following Jesus. It isn’t primarily about formal affiliation with a congregation, or participation in a particular style of worship, or even participation in the sacraments – primarily it is about love of Jesus and a willingness to share our encounter with him with others.

But as church, as an institution charged with guarding the integrity of Christ’s message, how do we make space for the many and varied ways that people actually connect with Jesus and his story? How do we gauge the commitment of people to the mission of the gospel and how might we structure our congregations to empower people to be evangelists in the way that the Samaritan woman was?

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