The tragic demise of the word “membership”

The tragic demise of the word “membership” June 30, 2015
"3 Hands," NVJ, Flickr C.C.
“3 Hands,” NVJ, Flickr C.C.

This year’s Virginia Annual Conference had the theme “From Members to Disciples.” It’s a common dichotomy in Christianese. A “church member” has come to mean someone who is little more than a name on a list, while a “disciple” indicates someone who has an active personal relationship with God. Throughout my career as a pastor, I have wracked my brain constantly trying to figure out how to help our “members” become “disciples.” But somehow at annual conference this year, I found myself mourning the demise of the word “membership,” because the word “member” originally captured something about community that has been lost in the individualism of American society.

Member and membrane are from the same Latin word membranus, which means a “limb” or “connected part” of a greater whole. What it should mean to be a member of something is that you’re embedded into the membrane of that community. This is the sense in which Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

The word appears in a slightly different form when we re-member the body of Christ each week through Eucharist. The purpose of this central ritual in the life of Christianity is not only to recall the past event of Christ’s great sacrifice for us, but to be “membraned” into Christ’s story. The bread and wine become the actual membrane of Christ’s body and blood distributed throughout the community of God’s people the same way that nutrients are distributed throughout a human body every time the heart pumps and lungs breathe.

Imagine if being a church member meant for us what it meant for Paul: being intimately interwoven into the lives of everyone else who breaks the same communion bread with us. The bastardization of the word “membership” has had a long historical process, but most recently, consumerism is the greatest culprit. Membership has become an entirely impersonal, transactional concept rather than the incarnational, mystical reality that it was for the early church. I agree to pay a certain fee or follow certain rules and then I receive certain rights and benefits as a result. Even churches with strict membership standards have the same impersonal, transactional understanding of what membership means. It’s really not possible to use the word in its original sense anymore.

What if membership really meant to be embedded into the same social membrane as a community? What if it meant that we face all of our problems and challenges together as a church? What if it meant free babysitting for single moms taking night classes at the local community college? What if it meant coming together as a church family all day on a Saturday to rehab the home of one of our shut-ins? What if it meant hiring a man who grew up in the church and just got out of prison for a job and co-signing on his apartment lease so that he can get back on his feet? What if it meant opening up your guest room to an immigrant family who visited your church and didn’t have a reliable place to stay? There are churches even today in our profoundly selfish, individualistic world who do all of these things because they have a strong, healthy sense of membership.

Though I understand the meaning of trying to move “from members to disciples,” I wonder if we need to move in the opposite direction as well. Having personal spiritual disciplines and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is critically important, but how many disciples are individualist free agents when it comes to church membership? How many disciples think they don’t need community because they’ve got their devotion and Bible apps on their smart phone? Ephesians 4:15-16 captures the kind of relationship we ought to have with Jesus and the rest of his body: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

So be disciples, but don’t neglect Jesus’ membrane!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hattie Freeman

    I believe to be a true member of the church you have to embrace the community. Remember the church is in us. This is Love. God is love. This is the act of Mercy.

  • Cynthia Astle

    Picking up for UM Insight.

  • DickWilson

    I take (correctly, I hope) your point that, while being-a-member in name only (‘on-the-books’) is not the same as becoming-in-membership (connecting-relationship), talk about becoming disciples easily slips into ‘Me-and-Jesus’ thinking and practices. Sure, “From Members to Disciples” is catchy, but ‘Members-becoming-in-membership’ is what your thoughts suggested.

  • Tim Gatewood

    There were some good comments about the “personal relationship with Jesus” concept and how it contributed to abuse of women and to women and girls allowing themselves to be abused in discussions on facebook about the Quiverfull Movement and the Duggar family when their son’s heinous actions became news. I tend to think that we are born and die alone and we need some time alone in between to know who we are and what we believe, but most of our time should be spent in community. If you deeply and truly believe that Jesus is Lord, then you should both have a personal relationship with Him AND be in community with others who share that belief. You should both follow his example and teachings AND show the results of those teachings in your actions, actions which should reflect the belief that God IS Love and “as you do unto the least of these, you do unto Me.” If your membership is a transactional one, as many are, you can not be IN a community of disciples, because discipleship requires action beyond the level of commercial transactions.

    Thank you for posting this piece. You have said things here that have helped me to clarify my thinking.