This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Members or Disciples?

            In his remarkable book, The Emerging Church, Bruce Sanguin talks about the difference between being a member of a church, and being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The Presbyterian Church in particular has been talking about membership almost to the exclusion of discipleship.  There does seem to be a kind of assumption that members of churches are also disciples of Jesus.  And the New Testament does talk about membership, a little.  But Jesus calls disciples.  He does not attract or even invite people to be members of his movement.
            The new President of Princeton Seminary, Craig Barnes, has mentioned how obsolete our understanding of church membership is today.  He noted that membership is a residue of the corporate model of the church, a category developed mainly so we would have “a way to tax people”.  People today, especially younger people, are not interested in membership as we present it.  When a person who has been happily active in a church for weeks or months is asked to become a member, and they ask why, all we can offer is some lame reason like, “Then you can vote in the annual meeting,” or “Then you can be elected an elder.”  These are not things that many participants in our churches understand, let alone care about. 
            Neither do disciples. 
            While the New Testament talks about being “members” of Christ’s body, membership in the church today is more institutional than organic.  “Membership has its privileges,” is the way one credit card company used to talk about it.  There are plenty of organizations out there that understand themselves to be in the business of primarily serving their members.  Too many churches and their members have this idea as well, as if the church existed to serve, cater to, satisfy, and otherwise placate the members.  Sanguin relates the story of a minister friend who attempted to move his congregation to a discipleship paradigm.  When the members complained, Sanguin quips that they “didn’t want the church.  They wanted Club Christendom back.”  Club Christendom has members.  Jesus Christ calls disciples.
            Declining churches frantically scramble for ways to attract new members.  What they should be doing is following Jesus’ own Great Commandment and making disciples, teaching people to obey his commandments.
            Unfortunately, denominations generally don’t count disciples or reward churches for making disciples.  They count and value members.  They don’t care in the slightest whether a church is teaching people to obey Jesus’ commandments.  They care whether the church is gaining members and money.  Denominations today would enthusiastically trade a church of 20 disciples for a church that gains members.
            How is a disciple different from a member?  Sanguin lays it out:
            “Members pay their dues and want to know what they are getting for their money.  Disciples are making an offering of all their resources and what to know how their money is being used for Christ.  Members expect a regular visit from their minister – after all, they’re card-carrying members!  Disciples expect to visit the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  Members help ‘the minister’ out.  Disciples discern and deploy their own gifts for ministry.  Members focus on institutional maintenance.  Disciples focus on mission.  Members fill bureaucratic slots in the church system.  Disciples serve according to their Spirit-given gifts.  Members have an organizational affiliation.  They talk about how many years they have been members.  Disciples express their allegiance to Christ in a dynamic faith community and want to talk about the difference their community of faith is making in the world.”  (Sanguin references a book by Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, for this insight.)
            When we concentrate on gaining members, we put ourselves in the same category of institution as a Masonic lodge, a bowling league, a Cub Scout troop, or a Rotary Club.  In different ways, some groups like this are desperately trying to attract new members.  Our culture is moving against joining and membership.  The church is just one more institution trying to stanch membership loss.
            But what if churches actually started to do what they are called to do?  What if they invested their energy in making disciples instead of gaining and serving members?  What if we taught, lived, rewarded, supported, and became known for the quality of our discipleship?  What if we focused on what Jesus did and commands us to do?  Take Luke 4, where Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying that his mission is “to bring good news to the poor… proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”?   And look at Luke 7, where Jesus validates his own ministry by showing how “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”  What if this was our identity?  What if we did and were known for this kind of behavior and practice?  What if we were known for our prayer, generosity, forgiveness, inclusion, healing, and blessing?
            So all the denominational hand-wringing about membership loss is beside the point.  The fewer people churches have who think of themselves as members of Club Christendom, the better it is for the mission of the church.  The point is not gaining members, but making disciples.  If we’re doing that, we are doing what the Lord Jesus commands.  Let’s ditch Club Christendom and turn to follow Jesus.

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