Church of American Express

When I worked for The University of Cincinnati, I had a corporate American Express card. What I remember most about that card was the marketing line that came to be it signature – “membership has its privileges.”

Sadly this could also be the motto of some churches in my experience as a pastor and nearly life-long church member. Members have privileges for their membership: personal care and attention from the church’s pastor, provision of various services such as use of the church building for personal functions, the right to have the worship style he or she desires, personal attention from the church secretary who acts as a kind of concierge for member services.

In his book Power Surge, mainline Protestant pastor Michael W. Foss writes this about the “membership model” of church:

The changing cultural context, with its displacement of Christianity from the center of individual and community life to the periphery, has caused a mutation in the membership model of the church. In the Protestant explosion of the 1950s, membership implied obligation. In today’s cultural context, membership has come to imply prerogatives.

Mostly what this membership model creates in today’s context is dissatisfaction. No church, however well-staffed, can meet the expectations of even a homogeneous church membership. Someone will be unhappy. And pastors in these churches, who are little more than personal chaplains, are burned out and miserable. They either face conflict for their unwillingness to accept the model or they are exhausted from trying to keep such an unsustainable model going.

The challenge (as Foss and others observe) is that this model worked in the 1950’s and 1960’s in part because the sense of obligation was greater than the sense of entitlement. Yes, members had expectations of the staff and church community. But the sense of obligation (to give, to serve, to participate) was overwhelmingly greater. That balance has shifted.

Some churches, however, are filled with people who came to the church with this model in place. They see it as the right way to do church. And even those who give sacrificially to the church in terms of time, money, and energy will guard jealously the rightness of this model. I once had someone say to me “We know how to do church and you need to learn from us what that is” when I suggested we consider looking at a model for church vitality and evangelism. What this person meant was the membership model.

There is another way, a better way. One built on, centered on somethign other than privileges. But that’s for next time.


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