Are you a member of our church? Have you “joined” our church? Before you answer the question I want to share Donald T. Williams definition of “Member” in his Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith: “Member (n.) One of the individuals who allegedly make up the roster of a given Congregation (q.v.) Less than one half of them can usually be found or accounted for.” A Congregation, according to Williams is: ” church-speak for Audience; those who show up for the entertainment offered on any given Sunday.” Note well that in neither of these definition does the word “Christian”, or “disciple of Jesus”, or “followers of Jesus on the Way” show up. Nope—just “member”.
While William’s definitions are obviously a “tongue-in-cheek” way of poking fun at churches who are a little too proud of the large number on their membership rolls; there is more truth in the above definitions than we would like to think. There are many on our church rosters who are not followers of Jesus nor Christians in any sense of the word. They are ones who “joined the church” , were baptized, etc. and went through the expected rituals, and then left and will never be seen again—-until they or a loved one are diagnosed with a terminal disease, or die unexpectedly. Then they or their families will expect the pastor of the church they “joined” to give them solace and hold their funerals. Many times as a pastor I was taken by surprise to read in an obituary that someone I had neither seen nor heard of was a member of my church!
That’s been the perennial problem caused by the idea of church membership. Church membership seems to mislead people into thinking that becoming a church members makes them a Christian!. It may well be—but it may not, also!
Another aspect of this perennial problem with “church membership” is that it leads people to think that they are “in” and those who are not “members” are “out.” This type of exclusivity is not Christian. It is not what Jesus taught nor the way he ministered. Surely anyone who has read a Gospel knows that the poor, the vulnerable, the blind, the leper, the victimized were the ones for which he showed priority concern. Never once did he say, you have to join my church to be my follower. No, you just followed him and modeled your life after him and his teachings. That’s what made you Jesus’ disciple.
Church membership as required is not what Paul wrote about. True, he founded churches so that they could mutually sustain each other in the midst of persecution. I believe Paul would say that church membership alone is just a variant of the old temple-system of Jesus time revived with its Court of the Gentiles, Court of the Women, Court of the Jews and the Holy of Holies that only priests could enter. One of the reasons Jesus attacked that system was its exclusivity. Paul likewise criticized in his teachings and his ministry those who tried to make Christianity exclusive—e.g. those who said you must become a good Jew and observe the Jewish Torah and customs, including food customs and male circumcision, before you can be a Christian. Paul wrote that God gives his saving Love and Grace to all—not just to those who have their names on church rolls.
“Membership” is good if it unites people in the body of Christ (the words used by Paul to describe the church) and therefore enables them as the body of Christ to do things that a single individual could not do in serving God and walking in “The Way”. Its the actions of all the individuals that make up the body that show they are followers of Christ—not their individual name on a membership roster of a church.
Who cares if you are a “member of the church”? That’s not the question. A better question to ask is “Are you walking with Jesus on the Way?”