I was generously given a nice little book that I would highly recommend to church pastors as an excellent resource for educating church members of what it means to be a member of a local church. Thom S. Rainer’s I am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference (B&H Publishing, 2013) is short (only 79 pages), straightforward and simple (accessible, not academic) and yet, covers very good ground.
In a market that is increasingly saturated with books targeted at pastors on how to be the ideal church leader, it is important and refreshing that someone wrote a book aimed at the followers. The book is organized into six chapters, each ending with a membership pledge.
What I like about this book is how Rainer frames church membership as a gift from God to believers. I agree with him that healthy institutional local church membership is a gift to help us grow spiritually – church membership is a tangible expression of being part of the body of Christ that is non-negotiable for Christian discipleship (Ephesians 4:11-13). I know that the local institutional church has not always been a blessing to people’s spiritual walk, but when healthy — and if the majority of church members follow the general attitude outlined in Rainer’s book, I think churches would be decently healthy — it is a real blessing.
Summary of Main Points
The title headings of each chapter alone tells a great deal, but I will also excerpt for you most of the pledges that close each chapter (all six are also reproduced at the end of the book). These alone should stimulate a great deal of thought for pastors. But I hope it does not discourage you from reading the whole book. It’s a quick and easy read, and from what you can see below, easily incorporated into a membership class, and even into a sermon series.
Here are the six chapters and pledges:
1. I Will Be a Functioning Church Member
Pledge: I am church member.
I like the metaphor. It’s not membership as in a civic organization or a country club. It’s the kind of membership given to us in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Because I am a member of the body of Christ, I must be a functioning member, whether I am an “eye,” an “ear,” or a “hand.” As a functioning member, I will give. I will serve. I will minister. I will evangelize. I will study. I will seek to be a blessing to others. I will remember that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26) (p. 77)
2. I Will Be a Unifying Church Member
Pledge: I will seek to be a source of unity in the church. I know there are no perfect pastors, staff, or other church members. But neither am I. I will not be a source of gossip or dissension. One of the greatest contributions I can make is to do all I can in God’s power to help keep the church in unity for the sake of the gospel. (pp. 77-78)
3. I Will Not Let My Church Be About My Preferences and Desires
Pledge: I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires. That is self-serving. I am in this church to serve others and to serve Christ. My Savior went to a cross for me. I can deal with any inconveniences and matters that are just not my preference or style. (p. 78)
4. I Will Pray for My Church Leaders
Pledge: I will pray for my pastor every day. … My pastor cannot serve our church in his own power. I will pray for God’s strength for him and his family every day. (p. 78)
5. I Will Lead My Family to Be Healthy Church Members
Pledge: I will lead my family to be good members of this church as well. We will pray together for our church. … We will ask Christ to help us fall deeper in love with this church, because He gave His life for her. (pp. 78-79)
6. I Will Treasure Church Membership as a Gift
Pledge: This membership is a gift. … I pray that I will never take my membership for granted, but see it as a gift and an opportunity to serve others and to be a part of something so much greater than any one person or member. (p. 79)
A Little Critique
I have a little issue though with pledges 4 & 5. Pledge 4 assumes the pastor is male and married. I would have preferred a more gender inclusive take there, as well as taking into account single pastors. Rainer’s marriage-centric and family-centric tendencies show up again in pledge 5, which privileges those who are married with children, and, inadvertently marginalizes singleness, even though he did try to qualify that in the book.
Additionally, Rainer could have been more careful in pledge 3, for instance, to clarify for members with disabilities and special needs not to confuse their very real needs with preferences, otherwise, unnecessary guilt might arise. And, although I understand that Rainer intends to counter-balance people’s tendency to criticize church leaders, he fails to do justice, in my mind, to a clarification of what counts as proper and necessary critique when church leaders properly fail. We may not want to be a source of dissension, as in pledge 2, but when do we also need to be prophetic critics of church leaders’ blind spots? For instance, Rainer’s own male and family centered viewpoints?
Rainer also assumes a broadly Evangelical, adult-baptism, type of church in his book. Some adaptation and augmentation will be needed to use this material in, for example, Reformed and Anglican churches.
I would have liked to see something about the denomination to which the local church is part of too. Local church membership also includes membership into the extended denominational family. Rainer basically ignores that reality. The danger, then, is too narrow a focus, in fact, potentially an inward looking focus, on the local church. I am one who believes that an outward looking church community that looks beyond its own inward ministries to denominational ministries and globally into the world is an important sign of a healthy church.
Given these misgivings, I still think it is a useful resource for pastors to build on in their membership classes or instructions. Ultimately, it’s strength, as I have said, is its framing of church membership as a spiritual activity. Membership is not simply an organizational, institutional, necessary evil. It can be a concrete manifestation of Christian discipleship and spiritual growth within a Christian community if we approach it with that attitude and mindset. And that attitude and mindset is what Rainer hopes to instill in Christians through this book.