Does Your Church Make Members or Disciples?

Has it really all come down to this? Accept Christ, become a member of a local church, and spend Sunday mornings in church? Did Jesus shake up religious and governmental authorities so that someday millions would eagerly join churches and come together each Sunday to sing songs, sip coffee and have polite conversations just outside the sanctuary?

Though Jesus called us to make disciples, most churches make members. I don’t blame them. They don’t know any other way. As the Greek poet Archilocus said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” A pastor’s training is focused on orthodoxy (right belief) rather than orthopraxy (right practice). For centuries the focus on belief in the pastor's training has matched his own experience of growth within the church. In short, church leaders are equipped to speak the language of the mind, not the heart.

The effect of this training hasn’t been good. Congregations are filled with spiritual infants; spiritually and emotionally immature people have been church members for as many as 75 years. As their lives attest, there's a world of difference between a church member and a disciple of Christ.

But what is that difference? Why do churches talk so much about becoming a member and mention next to nothing about becoming a disciple? Jesus taught that to follow meant to “take up your cross daily”. So how does an invitation to come and die morph into come, join, and enjoy?

To understand the present, we must first look at the past. For centuries Christ followers were hated. Since they had either turned away from pagan religions or come from the Jewish faith, they were outsiders. Most non-Christians believed Christians hated mankind, had the worst of vices, were superstitious, and a danger to Rome's survival. More than cultural outsiders, they were considered the scum of the earth. Instead of becoming members of a “church,” they followed Jesus together. As a result, they were systematically persecuted and killed in horrible ways. They sacrificed everything to follow Christ. And then in AD 313, everything changed.

In 313 Constantine, the Roman emperor, decided to end the government's systematic persecution of Christians. The change was an admission that persecution hadn’t worked. He then granted full legal standing to Christians, returned and restored property that had been taken or ruined, and changed the course of history.

In 392, Theodosius I continued the Roman government’s endorsement of Christianity by outlawing all public and private practices of pagan religions. He decreed that each person must adopt Christianity. In less than 100 years, Christ following went from being persecuted to being required.

Anyone who refused to join the church faced penalties. During the next 1,200 years the relationship between the church and government remained unchallenged. In that time, church membership was compulsory. In addition, what American Express taught us in its famous slogan, “membership has its privileges,” was certainly true during this time. Joining the church was protection from persecution such as loss of property and/or exile.

These societal changes effectively gave birth to the membership model of the church. The radical change meant that the call was to join, not to follow. Those who had previously born fruit by dying (John 12:24), now pursued comfort through conformity. Instead of a place to come and die, the church became a club to join and enjoy. Within the club, social status and prestige were up for grabs. Pews were purchased like seats at a stadium with the best going to those willing to pay the most. The show happened on Sunday mornings and attendance was the chief obligation of members.

Amazing, huh?! It’s easy to see how history continues to impact churches today. In a culture that highly values assembling masses, the membership model is a good fit. Pastors are often evaluated by counting butts, baptisms, and $bread. When the numbers are favorable pastors are patted on the back and rewarded with raises and opportunities at larger venues. On the other side, parishoners get to count without paying the price that the cross demands. By being faithful members, the spiritually immature end up in places of honor and leadership in the church community. In other words, it’s a win-win; the people get religion without obligation and the leaders get to lead without the hassle of loving like Jesus did.

The primary problem of the membership model is the culture it creates. When the goal is masses, not maturity, the church develops an unhealthy culture that’s ingrown. Let me explain…

In a membership culture, the force is centripetal; it pulls inward. A clear distinction’s made between those who are in and those who are out. The initial call to a non-member is to join. The continuing call of a member is to contribute. Individuals the culture celebrates is telling. In a membership culture, those who attend the most, give the most (money and/or time), and persuade the most non-members to become members, are the ones who are celebrated. Since members are drawn inward, they expect those they seek to reach to come to the organization. In this way, the organization intentionally sustains and grows itself by making new members.

By contrast, the force of a disciple making culture initially draws inward, but only for the purpose of propelling outward. The inward movement develops the disciple for deployment outside of the organization. The initial call of a non-disciple is to follow. The continuing call of a disciple is to follow and bear fruit. Individuals the culture celebrates is telling. In a disciple making culture, individuals who follow and bear fruit in the context of the lost (regardless of whether or not those reached ever join the culture) are the ones who are celebrated. Since the disciples are moving outward, they expect to go to those they seek to reach. As they go, the organization intentionally grows the Kingdom and fulfills Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations.

C.S. Lewis said, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose.”  

Pastors and churches must be evaluated based on the kind of disciples they send out into the world. Each and every Christian is called to be and to make disciples. There’s no exception or excuse for not pursuing maturity and reproduction.

So, what about you? To those who are pastors, what kind of culture are you growing in your church? To those who aren’t clergy, are you striving to become like Christ? Do you intend to reproduce His life into others?