Members or Disciples?

Part three in an ongoing series musing on a missional theology of ecclesiology…

A cultural and ministry shift is occurring in the Church in America. Beginning in the late 20th century and growing in this new century, a re-focus is occurring from church membership to discipleship as the goal of congregational ministries. While the call of the Great Commission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for decades now, the measurement of Great Commission engagement has become interpreted as a call for churches to make members but not necessarily to make disciples; the measurement is membership at best, and lately, more often than not, the metric has been reduced to attendance at public worship services.

In the first nine years of my own ministry I fully believed that one of the most significant measures of fulfilling our Lord’s command to “make disciples” was to bring individuals and families into my church membership. Over time, it became increasingly clear that something was tragically wrong with this model of ministry. Let me explain.

Is church membership a meaningful measure of making disciples? If so, it becomes quite easy for church leadership to come to view church members as a means to an end. Think about it. When we encourage new people to become part of a church, how do we consider them? Too many church folks intimate – and I have felt this way far too often – that the joy of new members is as much about helping to pay the bills or filling programmatic positions as it is a celebration of extending the kingdom of God through His church. Now we would not admit this in such a direct manner, but this undercurrent is quite easy to sense and far too common. We need to be willing to reconsider our attitudes and actions about membership and discipleship.

The cultural content for the word membership has changed. Membership means privilege and entitlement – perspectives that have nothing to do with the Gospel! Membership means such an open-ended commitment today that many people have come to act like members but will avoid becoming formal members. Ongoing, non-renewable membership is difficult for people to consider; it is quite foreign to their thinking. Membership as a term of spiritual discipleship lost its meaning.

Although we hear much in the Protestant movement about a priesthood of all believers, we have come to live something else. There has become a clear division between the sacred work of the church (the pastor’s job) and the secular business of the church (the lay leader’s job). How we engage in ministry as pastors and lay leaders has less to do with the gifts God has given and more to do with formal positions of leadership or service. Nor are there clear expectations for spiritual living for non-ordained leaders. Basically, if any person, and even a church leader, avoids breaking the fifth, sixth, or seventh commandments, there is little concern about their life and manifestations of spiritual formation at the hand of the Holy Spirit. The difference between congregational expression and the Church that our Lord started with his disciples seems to be not a growing gap but a gaping chasm.

There is a dark side to church rosters and membership: It can create a competition-model for ministry that is quite unchristian. Rather than seeking the lost, we more frequently are shuffling the moving or the disgruntled between congregations. This can lead to a great un-confessed sin: pastoral jealousy. Whenever a pastor or church “does well,” others pastors or churches can become resentful instead of celebrating the advance of the Kingdom of God. On a personal level, whenever a family or individual leaves one church and joins another, especially within the same town or metro-area, pastors and church leaders may feel personally wounded — instead of assuming that the Holy Spirit of God had led the people elsewhere.

Reggie McNeal compares the attitudes of church membership to a club house mentality. In his book, The Present Future, he writes:

“As he hung on the cross Jesus probably never thought the impact of his sacrifice would be reduced to an invitation for people to join and to support an institution.”

Are we more concerned about God’s kingdom and making disciples or are we consumed with supporting an institution by increasing its membership? This is a sobering question. The church with which I am involved practices confessing membership. Jesus calls for cross-bearing disciples.

Disciple-making ministry addresses these issues head on. Jesus knew what he was doing when he called us to make disciples not members. The result of growing a disciple-making ministry is the release of missional energy — in the pastor as well as the people. An underlying confidence emerges when we step out of the competitive model into which most of our congregations have unconsciously stepped. We discover a God of abundance and a people willing to give more time and energy than we ever imagined.



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