Over the weekend the elders of our church will be on retreat to discern and discuss some of the inner workings of our church. One of the areas of our discussion will revolve around the topic of membership. Even in our small 50+ community we’re battling with keeping our membership from drifting into something that’s only reflecting on paper and nominal.

Our membership currently works like this: if you want to become a member of our community you have to visit us for a few months building relationships and becoming a part of the rhythms of our church – after this period prospective members break a clay pot with some other potential members. Every person takes a shard of the pot home and prays about the role God wants them to fulfill in the kingdom and in our community. On the following Wednesday the group come together to glue the pieces together. If someone decides not to come – then the gluing happens on another time. If you want to read more about this ceremony then you can click here.

In the beginning of this year we decided that membership will have to be renewed on a yearly basis. So in January 2006 Kleipot had no official members. We then worked on a process during which every potential member had to work out a spiritual growth plan for the year and then submit it to an accountability partner in the community. Once you’ve done this you would write your name in a community journal signifying that you’re a member. The accountability partners would meet at least once every other month.

Even though this process was a definite step-up in terms of membership commitment we’re still trying to figure out how to make everyone an active part of the body. One huge step we’ve taken to ensure a healthy congregation has been the selection of elders (a process that took us through 3 months of intense study, selection and scrutiny). This now means that we have a very healthy elder/member ratio.
In preparation for the weekend ,our elders are studying some church history. Eberhard Arnold wrote an excellent book on the Early Church (it’s a free pdf download here). When I read accounts of the first communities then it’s obvious that membership was not diluted – it was radical.

I came across the catechesis principle yesterday. During the catechesis process, a student would be under the supervision of a parent (mentor, guide – whatever funky term you want to use). During this relationship the mentor would guide the student into the knowledge and living of the faith – into ortho-doxy and ortho-praxis. Without this process a new convert would not be allowed to be a full participating member of the church. He would be allowed to be a part of the church service and then be excluded from other parts (mostly communion and prayers) – now the big shocker is that this process took 3 years and was conducted daily (in the morning before work). Also insightful is that the sponsor joined his catechumen for these sessions! The sponsor (catechist) commented on the catechumen’s knowledge and lifestyle. After the three years the person would be baptized, would share communion and become a full member. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the early church grew the way they did? In my research I stumbled on a wonderful article written by a New Testament Prof at Talbot entitled, “Early Church catechesis and new Christian’s classes in contempary evangelicalism.” – pdf download here. The article is a wonderful exposition of how far we’ve drifted from the intense process needed to become a member in the church. In most churches we ask for a maximum of 8 weeks compared to the 3 years needed in the early church!

Now I know that most people who become members in churches are not “new Christians” per se (a sad fact in itself). Yet taking the immense levels of immaturity in the church of Jesus it might just be that we have thousands of people trapped in a prolonged infancy who are hopping from one church to the other. Maybe it will be worth our while to start fresh and introduce some of the principles our friends in the early church practiced during the catechesis process?

This is all a little ironic since I come from a Reformed background and as such have been through catechism (especially the Heidelberg’s catechism). The only difference between my experience with it and that of the early church is the important factor of ‘want’. I had no choice and had to go through the catechism whereas the early church enrolled those who showed interest in becoming members of the church.

Another thing that’s standing out for me is the radical emphasis the early church placed on the sacraments of baptism and communion. For them it definitely was not just another item in the liturgy of the church but a pinnacle of their exercising of the faith.
This initiation process of the early church made a lot of sense since the people were indoctrinated in all kinds of pagan religions and had to learn new ‘faith-reflexes’. The strict system also helped the church in maintaining a strong core for their communities. It also helped to eliminate spies who tried to infiltrate the churches.

All of this changed when Christianity became the State religion and people flocked to the church en-mass. During this time the catechism changed to something that could initiate more people in a more expedient manner. This was the birth of the shift from Christianity to Christendom.