The problem, however, is that in our world today “member” and “membership” have become thoroughly secular terms.
When a visitor in a worship service hears the pastor extend an invitation for people to become members of the congregation, much of the time those people are not visualizing themselves becoming a hand or a foot in the service of the body of Christ. Rather they are equating membership in the church with membership in the AAA.
What does membership in the AAA involve? In return for the payment of a certain amount of dues, the member is then entitled to a specific set of services. In addition, the member will occasionally receive a newsletter containing a listing of activities in which the member may or may not choose to participate. Furthermore, members receive an identification card, assuring them of their good standing as members of the organization.
Is it a stretch to say that many people do not recognize a difference between membership in the church and the AAA? I don’t think so. Just the other day an envelope arrived at the church with a check inside. Boldly printed on the memo line was “2003 Dues.” That’s not the first time I’ve seen such terminology on a contribution to the church. The main difference, though, is that many people pay more in dues to the AAA than they do to their church.
In return for their dues, of course, members expect to receive services. Just like AAA, members tend to make use of their membership status only during a time of crisis (e.g., some part of their car goes bad and they need someone to look over it), many church members also invoke their membership only in times of need (e.g., some part of their body goes bad and they need someone to pray over it).
When it comes to newsletters, I have not seen any research as to whose publication receives more attention. But I have a suspicion that many people find it far more entertaining to look at ads for Disney World vacations and Caribbean cruises than to read about upcoming Bible studies and service projects at their church.
While most churches do not issue wallet-size ID cards to their members, countless members have this mythical idea of a “letter” that has their name on it somewhere in the church archives. When someone is getting ready to move, surely you have heard them speak of having their letter forwarded to their new church. On the basis of that letter, members are able to sleep well at night, assured that their membership is secure.
What will it take to get our church members to realize that there is a difference between membership in the AAA and membership in the church of Jesus Christ? I believe the first step in that direction is to abandon completely the use of the word “member.” In its place, I propose that we rename our members as “disciples.” My guess is that there are not too many other organizations that are going to try to wrestle that term away from us. After all, “disciple” is a rather strange, religious word; it is not a term that you regularly hear bandied about on the bus or around the water cooler.
Precisely because of its strangeness, I think “disciple” would serve the purpose of communicating to people that inclusion and participation in the church is something far different from membership in any other assemblage they may be associated with. What do you think? Is it time for our church to get rid of its members?
Posted Feb. 20, 2003
C. Edward Bowen is pastor, Crafton United church, Pittsburgh.
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