I like Thom Rainer. I have benefited greatly from his books and research. But his most recent book, I Am a Church Member, is severely misguided and misinformed.
I Am a Church Member appears to be intended for “Church Membership” classes in local churches. While I am not a fan of institutional churches or of the church membership classes that go with them, I do understand that if a group of believers are going to meet in an institutional way, they probably need some sort of membership rolls, and membership classes to go with them. Fine. If that is how you think it is best to follow Jesus, I have absolutely no problem with it.
So what is the problem with Thom Rainer’s book? I Am a Church Member uses guilt and fear to get new church members to do what the church leadership wants.
Let me back up.
By all reports, institutional Christianity is hemorrhaging. Every year, millions of people abandon the institutional way of doing church, not because they are abandoning God, Jesus, or the Church, but because they find that intimate relationships with others and loving service in the community apart from the systematized and scheduled meetings on Sunday morning is a more natural way of following Jesus and living life as His disciples.
Naturally, this mass exodus from the church has church leaders scared. They need people to fill their pews. Why? So that they can give their tithes, so the church building can be paid for and the pastoral salaries funded, and so that there is a place and people for all the expensive church programs.
But how do you tell church members that to truly follow Jesus, they have to attend church, give their tithes, support the church leadership, and serve in church programs?
Apparently, you get Thom Rainer to write a book about it, and get 23 prominent church leaders and seminary presidents to endorse the book, and then price the book in such a way so that scared church leaders all over the country will buy hundreds of copies of the book so they can hand it out to all the people in their “Church Membership” classes.
A Summary-Review of I Am a Church Member
Here is a basic summary of Thom’s book:
Rainer begins the book pointing out that nine out of ten American churches are declining in attendance (p. 4). His book is the proposed prescription to this problem. (But is it really a problem?)
Beginning with a terrible misunderstanding of Paul’s “Body” imagery in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and how every “member” of the Body needs every other member, Rainer uses six chapters to propose six commitments that every new church member must make to the church they are attending. The six commitments are actually six popular cliches which church leaders around the world love to use in sermons and in publications to guilt church people into being regular church attendees.
The best (read: worst) part about each chapter, is that they conclude with a pledge for the reader to sign and date! I can almost visualize the conclusion of each week in the Membership classes, where the Pastor (or Elder) teaching the class get everybody to stand and say the pledge out loud, and then collects copies of everyone’s pledge to be stored in the person’s “Membership File” so that if they ever get out of hand, the pastor can pull their file and say, “See? You made a commitment. You signed on the dotted line. Are you going to break your word? Are you a liar? You know where liars go, don’t you?”
That may be a bit over the top, but you get the gist…. and if you have ever sat through one of these meetings, you know that this is pretty much how they go… See this satirical video.
The Six Commitment in I Am A Church Member
Here are Rainer’s six recommended commitments (summarized and reworded for this review):
- I will devote as much time and energy to my local church as possible, because if I don’t, I am letting Jesus down.
- Nobody is perfect. Not even my pastor. So I won’t talk or think negatively about him in any way, or challenge anything he says or does, because doing so would damage the gospel.
- Church isn’t about me. Even if I don’t like the music, can’t stand the preaching, there’s nothing for my kids, and I think the church is wasting my time and money, I will still attend faithfully.
- No matter what, I will support my pastor and pray for him every single day.
- I will bring my entire family to church with me, because the future of my family, the church, and the entire world depend on it.
- I love being a member of this church, and I never, ever, want to stop being a member. It’s the best! I promise. It’s a gift from God.
Yes, yes, my summaries are a bit snarky. But if you read Thom’s book, you will see that my summaries are not that far off from what he actually wrote. I am using satire to point out how guilt-laden and performance-driven these commitments are.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because I am tired of church leaders with expensive church buildings and bloated church budgets trying to shore up their ineffective church programs by demanding further sacrifice and greater commitments from tired and weary church members. What ever happened to “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?
While there may be some people are leaving institutional Christianity because they are rebelling against God or forsaking Jesus, the vast majority are leaving so that they can better follow Jesus into the world. Isn’t this something to be praised and encouraged?
Look, being a church member has nothing to do with sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, listening to a sermon and praying for your pastor, giving your money to support a local church budget, and making commitments to serve on a church ministry program.
Are we all members of one Body? Yes. Does every member need every other member? Of course.
And that is exactly why so many millions of people are leaving institutional Christianity. It is not because they don’t want to be members of Christ’s church, but because they are members of Christ’s church, the Body, and have found that Jesus wants them to serve the Body and love the world in ways that waste less time and money.
Look, I am not against people attending church. Truly. I am not. I am not against “Church Membership” for people who attend church. The way that system is set up, “Church Membership” is a good idea. What saddens me is that church leaders think that people who “leave their church” are forsaking Jesus, abandoning the church, and living in rebellion against God.
Just once, I would love for a mega-church pastor or a prominent church author to come out and announce a blessing upon all those people who are leaving their church to follow Jesus in tangible and loving ways in the community. Why cannot church leaders see themselves as “sending these people out into the world” rather than see them as “leaving the church”?
So if Thom Rainer ever reads this review, I would invite him to write a follow-up book which church pastors can hand out to people who are leaving their church. It could be titled, I Am a Church Member (…even if I don’t attend church). The book would contain no pledges, no dotted lines upon which to sign, and no guilt trips. Instead, it would contain a commitment on the part of the church leadership to not condemn or criticize those who leave institutional Christianity, but to bless them and thank them for being the church by following Jesus in ways that take great courage and creativity.
I beg Thom Rainer (and all the Seminary Presidents and Mega Church Pastors who endorsed I Am a Church Member) to recognize that many people may be leaving the institutional church, not because they have given up on church, are abandoning Jesus, or are bad church members, but because they are good church members and they want to be the church by following Jesus into their neighborhoods and communities.