mem·​ber | \ ˈmem-bər  \

(Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2022)

Definition of member

1a body part or organ

2one of the individuals composing a group

3a person baptized or enrolled in a church


Many of the efforts to reclaim discipleship today focus on scholarship, training  and education, which we discussed in last week’s blog. But another oft-used silver bullet, with marginal results, is membership in a church. Membership, so the logic goes, means standards of behavior and performance, and we require them of our members, which results in discipleship.


Membership is a very inward-facing phenom. It’s gathering-centric. Membership is building up a “many” so that the brand, or the bureaucracy can use influence to establish community, notionally a good thing, and clout – not always a good thing – to gain conformity of members. The price for membership admission includes, among other things, a commitment, loyalty and exclusivity. Not a member? Not part of the in crowd.


If you study Church history you can see membership coming of age, and the other – discipleship devolving over time. It was a beguiling change – the way institutional Christianity morphed its core mission of discipling into membership.

Before Constantine reversed Roman animus toward other religions (especially Christianity), followers of Christ gathered in small houses and hovels, often under great duress, or persecution. During this time, as we can see in Acts 11v25, the definition of a disciple was simply someone following Christ as their Savior and Lord, without respect to danger and cost.


Constantine’s edict favoring Christianity meant droves rushing to the newly-affirmed Church. And droves meant hauling masses of people aboard, not as individual disciples would have been developed, but as members. Members warehoused for another day and time when they might be discipled, perhaps. Such discipling was rare for most members. Disciples from the Constantinian period and beyond were generally clerical elites, the higher orders so to speak, not common Christian. And membership was gilded, so that to be a member of the Church was to have Bona Fides in society. Membership was now the thing, and the standards for a disciple were in descent, or more accurately, being conflated with membership.


By the 1800’s in the Western world, membership in a church was a voucher for an individual’s integrity, an unquestioned high standing in society. A voucher that likely did not involve an identity change, as Christ meant his for disciples to undergo. Instead, it was a religious hall pass declaring “this person is one of ours, and virtuous in that alone”.  Consider a statement by William Wilberforce about membership, and how it benefacted: “He was born in a Christian country, of course he is a Christian; His father was a member of the Church of England, so is he. When such is the hereditary religion handed down from generation to generation, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend.”


The idea of a disciple had now come full circle, to once again include ordinary people, but reduced, stripped of the extraordinary transformation of Christ.  Now, it was just membership. Membership had come to mean, essentially, that a person was involved in the affairs of their church, hence they were good to go as a disciple.  Membership and discipleship had merged.


Today if you ask a modern evangelical church-goer what a disciple “is”, odds are membership in a church is necessary in the definition. Throw in some ministry participation, a prayer here and there, maybe a small group and a little giving and the member is a top-drawer disciple. Christianity has become, to use Hugh Hewitt’s term, a “quaint and charming lunacy” in the Western landscape, as discipleship morphs to membership. Or in the case of the Nones & Dones, to just shipped off.


Membership produces low-yield discipleship. This does not mean membership should go away. But it does mean designing an organization where membership takes a back seat to the mission of discipling. The things that are traditional measures of Christian community must become subservient to that preeminent mission of discipling. If membership is the foundation for discipleship, it will be disciples founded on quicksand. Rare are memberships that actually drive discipleship. It is only by disciples, who as servants of the Most-High God are motivated internally, that memberships in local bodies of Christ flourish.  Leaders – how is your church or Christian community structured? Members, and your leaders hoping for disciples to emerge? Or disciples, who as servant-members are making disciples? It matters. Don’t join the membership club expecting disciples. What to do? Welcome to The Disciple Dilemma.

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