What does “church member” mean?

membership card

I don’t like the words “church member.”  I have been concerned for many years about how Christians view “membership” in the local church.  The problem comes because of our cultural understanding of the word “member.”  We use this word when we talk about certain clubs like the Lion’s club, Rotary club, or a country club.  A club expects members to pay member fees and attend meetings.

We also use the word member for certain businesses like Sam’s club, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon Prime.  We pay an annual fee and focus on benefits we receive due to membership; things like special discounts.  In today’s society, when we think of membership, we are usually thinking about privileges or benefits.

The problem comes when we bring this cultural idea of membership over to the local church, where we see ourselves giving dues (or offerings) and attending when we can (an optional choice, if there’s nothing else going on).  It is easy for us to feel entitled to certain things, expecting our membership in a local church to bring certain benefits.  We expect things like a challenging sermon, entertaining music, good childcare, hospital visits, marrying and burying by the pastor, and help in a crisis.  None of these are bad things, but we can easily find ourselves focusing on the benefits of church membership rather than our responsibility to follow and serve Jesus.  It is so easy to buy into this way of thinking.

It’s the difference between house “owners” and house “renters.”  Renters pay a monthly rent and get to enjoy living in the house.  If there is a problem though with the house, they can call the landlord to have it fixed.  It’s not their problem because they don’t own it.  Owners are fully devoted and engaged because they are responsible for what happens with the house.  It’s the difference between “creators” and “consumers.”  Creators are actively involved, using their gifts and abilities to create and lead.  Consumers aren’t working to create anything, they are just consuming what has already been created.

When the Apostle Paul used the word “member,” he was talking about each Christian being a vital part of a living organism—the body of Christ.  He was not talking about being a member of an institution.  In our contemporary way of thinking, we often look at membership through an individualistic lens.  We end up focusing on the benefits, rights, and privileges of church membership rather than on our responsibilities, service, and participation.  Because the word member has lost its deeper biblical meaning, I am personally trying to stop using it.  Instead of “church member,” I am trying to use the phrase, “fully-engaged follower of Jesus.”

Reflections:  Do you see yourself as entitled to things as a member of your local church or do you see yourself as a responsible owner?  Would you call yourself a “fully-engaged follower of Jesus?  Are you a renter or an owner when it comes to the local church?  Are you a creator or a consumer?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Matthew 16:24


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