Last summer, I moderated a panel discussion on branch church membership at the New York City Church Alive Workshop. Here are some of the questions we considered:
What is the purpose of membership? What does membership promise in return?
The NYC Church Alive workshop panel was titled, “Membership: Its Purpose and Promise.” When I shared this title with one of the panelists, she said, “I get the purpose part; what’s the promise?” Good question! This led us both to think about the healing that comes naturally from being a church member. She realized she’d been healed of grief and depression when she became a branch church member again, after a time away.
Church membership also comes with a promise of Christian fellowship and spiritual growth. It requires giving selflessly, and in return one is rewarded with a sense of satisfaction unmatched in other organizational work, because this satisfaction derives from God and therefore is not momentary, but lasting.
Being a church member demands humility and cooperation, and returns a stronger sense of unity and purpose for all involved. Church membership benefits the individual; in turn, each individual’s experience of church membership ripples out to bless the neighboring community and ultimately the whole world.
What defines a potential member?
What are the criteria for considering applicants? What would make someone not acceptable for membership?
There’s another perspective for thinking about membership—that of the collective body considering applicants. In most churches, the individual who wants to join approaches a member and the application process begins. But is that the only way—or necessarily the best way? Are our application procedures inviting and welcoming to potential members, or do they sometimes inadvertently convey a clubby atmosphere?
One branch church in New York City put its membership application packets in the pew racks. The First Reader announces that they are available for anyone who is a serious student of Christian Science and wants to grow spiritually and contribute to the broader community.
One of the NYC Church Alive workshop panelists shared how she became a branch church member only a year after first finding Christian Science. When a man at the branch church she was attending asked her to join, she went right downstairs to the clerk’s office and asked for an application. She said up until then she hadn’t considered herself “ready” for membership. Now she thought, “He must see something in me that suggests I am ready,” and that was all she needed to hear. Many churches have long-time, faithful attendees who aren’t members. Has anyone ever asked them to join?
Is membership necessary?
Is membership essential to one’s spiritual growth? Why not just study the Bible Lesson found in the Christian Science Quarterly, and attend church services and Wednesday testimony meetings?
Branch church membership is a Manual provision, which suggests to me that, yes, it is essential. I liken it to a laboratory in which we get to work out our salvation through seemingly quotidian activities that are actually unique because they take place in a Christian Science church—inside “the structure of Truth and Love” (Science and Health, p. 583). Working side-by-side with other Christian Scientists, we get to practice patience, forgiveness, and humility and to overcome self-consciousness, willfulness, envy, and arrogance by volunteering to serve before we’re asked, listening to others’ ideas, and working toward a common goal: sharing Christian Science with a deserving world. In return, we get to be on the receiving end when we find ourselves in need of extra support or tender care.
Mary Baker Eddy said that God “supplies within the wide channels of The Mother Church dutiful and sufficient occupation for all its members” (Manual of The Mother Church, p. 45). I’ve certainly found this to be so, when I’ve applied myself wholeheartedly to submitting to God’s purpose for His church.
Joining a branch church is a big step because it includes a commitment to serve God and all mankind. Is it challenging? Sometimes. Rewarding? Beyond words.
Pamela Cook is a Christian Science practitioner in New York City.