It’s a cliche we’ve all read dozens of times, and maybe uttered with indignation — “The church is not a Rotary club!” True enough. Rotary is a humanitarian and social organization and the church is the Body of Christ, our Lord’s physical presence in the world through which God works to build the Kingdom of God. But I’ve been a member of three different Rotary clubs during the last 15 years and I wish the church were MORE like Rotary.
Universality — Rotary clubs operate in more than 100 countries around the world, transcending national, ethnic and religious boundaries. I can visit a Rotary club in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or China and be warmly welcomed and shown fellowship. In the U.S., many Rotary clubs are far more diverse than the churches in the same communities.
Hospitality — Rotary makes a serious effort to welcome and honor guests. Each club maintains a hospitality table to receive guests. Guests are recognized and applauded, and if from a foreign country, given a small banner to take back to their home club. By contrast, I have visited a number of churches small enough for visitors to be recognized, but where no one greeted or said a word to me. And how many churches have an organized ministry of hospitality to greet guests? Given the biblical imperative of hospitality, especially the example of Jesus, the church should be the world leader in extending welcome to guests. But in my experience, Rotary does it better.
Mission — Rotary supports a wide variety of worthy charities, but in the last decade has focused on the big, hairy, audacious goal of eradicating polio. Rotary is working in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has had great success: Today, polio remains a health threat in only four countries, and its eradication is in sight. I find this vision of a polio-free world compelling, and it draws me in. When asked, “What good do you do?” Rotarians can answer, “We’re wiping out polio.” By contrast, how many members of our churches can articulate the mission of the church? And if instead of being known for fighting over sexuality, what if the PC(USA) were widely known for a big, hairy, audacious mission that really changes the world?
Values — at the end of every meeting, a Rotary club will recite The Four-Way Test that “guides everything we say and do” — 1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Though I’ve amused myself imagining situations where one part of the test conflicts with another, it actually works pretty well. For instance, some years ago a club member gave an invocation that was highly politically partisan. A club member asked the leadership if that prayer passed the Four-Way Test. Even if one conceded that the prayer was the truth, it failed the rest of the Test and the membership was asked to keep politics out of prayers. There are many admonitions in the New Testament for the church to live by — “Let no unwholesome words come out of your mouth … .” “Let all that you do be done in love … .” It might do a church good to choose a few and find a way to learn and live by them.
Commitment — Rotary requires weekly attendance. If a member misses a meeting, she is required to make it up at another club. In addition, each member is assessed dues that pay club expenses and support charitable work, and is also expected to participate in club activities to raise money for charities and directly participate in some of them, like Meals on Wheels. All members of Rotary are by definition active members who attend, contribute and serve. How do your church’s expectations of membership compare?
The church is not Rotary. But we could surely learn from it.
SCOTT BOWERMAN is pastor of New Kirk Presbyterian Church in Blythewood, S.C.