Does Member Language Make Sense for the Church?
While I was at the National NEXT Church conference I ran across several conversations about the language of membership in a church not making sense. The idea of membership – the argument goes – is antiquated and institutional.
The conversation is familiar, it is one I picked up about 8 years ago and it led into my Doctor of Ministry with a focus on discipleship and how member language may subvert the church’s calling to make, and send out, disciples. I want to try to distill some of those thoughts:
My initial frustration was that member language makes the church feel any social group – rotary, the YMCA, a soccer club, a country club. We pay a service, we get a card: we are a member. Furthermore I have “membership” cards to everything from my favorite yogurt place to Pet Smart. I constantly am reminded of this when I stop at gas station I use frequently that has a membership card (I don’t have one) and before you pump you have to hit a button either for “loyalty card” or “continue without loyalty.” I always feel judged when I hit the latter. Is church just a place seeking your loyalty and your dues in order to be included? Furthermore if you work towards what you measure and we measure members, not disciples, than isn’t the church working toward the wrong telos?
The church is not a social club. A word from a great sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:
“To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” …society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.
Add in to this critique of looking and acting like a social club that generations of people today are skeptical of institutions or wish to create new ones. In today’s culture anything that feels rigid and formal and promotes the church as a place where you have to fit yourself into us in order to be an “insider” just feels wrong. I can understand, in this light, the desire to do away with the member word. I was one of those people.
But I’ve tipped my hand when I said was.
Two things emerge from a cascade of thoughts:
Peter Block’s research on belonging (I highly recommend his book Community: The Structure of Belonging). His work on community is not about the church but I find it the most captivating argument about what a church needs to be in order to really BE church. In the foundation presentation of his thesis he presents a two-fold understanding of belonging. The need to foster a sense of belonging to the community that causes a sense of place (I belong here) and a sense of responsibility (I own the mission and seek the welfare of these people). We make a difference in our community, and make communities of difference, when we belong to them.
Member: send it away or claim it in a healthy way I do think we are all in for the work of creating this kind of belonging (both these kinds of belonging).
Secondly. Its Jesus. Pesky, makes my life difficult, Jesus. Jesus certainly reached out to the masses, healed insiders and outsiders, and frankly more outsiders. Jesus preached on the street to any who overheard his gospel. But Jesus also called disciples. From out of the crowds of undifferentiated masses Jesus calls individuals. Jesus called those disciples to committed relationships (just take a gander at the Luke 9). Jesus required “dropping nets” and leaving behind and committing to a community of transformation. I recall often the words of A.B. Bruce author of The Training of the Twelve. He says that the apostles in the Acts are capable of audacious faith because first they spent significant formative time committed to be in the presence of Jesus and community of discipleship around him.
I may not love the member word. But the word isn’t as misplaced as I once thought. I came to an articulation of membership like this: Discipleship is our lifelong journey of wrestling with God, and God’s people, in how I am called to live my faith. Membership is the particular community I choose for this time and place to help me do the ongoing work of discipleship.
Maybe what our bigger problem is when we think the membership word draws a line. Us | Them.
Jesus doesn’t practice this kind of community. Instead he seems adept at ever larger concentric circles of community.
(The Twelve Disciples)
(“many disciples” (John 6:66 indicates a ring beyond the 12))
(The crowds // onlookers, over-hearers… admirers)
You get the point.. ultimately this is an unbounded set. Emphasis on unbounded!
So maybe our member word isn’t the problem. The problem is that we make too little, and not enough of it, in the practice of the community of those who follow in the way of Jesus. The community that is, somehow, the Body of Christ.