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Rethinking church membership: An interview with Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway Christian Resources, helps people rethink church membership in light of new research - Image courtesy of Lifeway Christian Resources
Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway Christian Resources, helps people rethink church membership in light of new research - Image courtesy of Lifeway Christian Resources

Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway Christian Resources, helps people rethink church membership in light of new research – Image courtesy of Lifeway Christian Resources

People are choosing to join churches as formal members less frequently, according to new research explored by Dr. Thom Rainer in his newest book I Am a Church Member. As president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, Rainer is the perfect person to investigate the reasons why church membership is on the decline and present a new model for churches and their people. He admits that his book presents an “idealized depiction of church membership,” but he points out the dangers of approaching the church and the Christian life with a “me first” attitude instead of an “others first” attitude.

Rainer is the author of 22 books, and holds a PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he worked for 12 years as the founding Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. Here we talk about the attitudes and concerns of today’s evangelicals toward church and church membership, particularly in light of recent church abuse scandals.

JM: You have written extensively on millennials, both in your book The Millennials and on your blog. We know that many millennials are either walking away from the church altogether or are at least shying away from formal church membership. Did you have this generation in mind when you wrote I Am A Church Member and if so, what do you hope your book will communicate specifically to Millennials?

TR: I did not have the millennials in mind specifically when I wrote I Am a Church Member. But my research on that generation shows they are leaving churches because those churches are focused on themselves. Millennials want to make a difference and to be a part of something that makes a difference. I hope my book communicates to millennials and others how they can have the right mindset to make a difference in a local congregation.

JM: Why should a current church member pick up your book? What can those who support church membership learn and improve upon?

TR: My research shows that most church members do not have a biblical understanding of church membership. The church, for many, is a place to go to be served rather than to serve. I hope that my book will have a role in turning that type of attitude upside down. The biblical picture of church membership is one of serving and giving. In that regard, I hope every church member who picks up the book will benefit.

JM: The Bible does not specifically mention local church membership. How do you explain the biblical basis for church membership to someone who is new to the faith or resistant to church membership?

TR: The Bible does not mention church membership in the way many of our local congregations practice it today. It does, however, specifically mention church membership in 1 Corinthians 12 as being a member of the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that letter to a local body of believers at Corinth, and he wrote several other letters to local congregations in specific places. So church membership is truly a biblical concept, even if it’s not identical to the way we practice it today.

JM: Your book is an expansion of a single post by the same title that paints a beautiful, albeit idealized, picture of church membership. Talk about what church membership looks like when church life is less than ideal and members are facing the challenges of church life, such as working with difficult people, dealing with conflict, making decisions, managing money, and holding one another accountable?

TR: Admittedly, my book is an idealized picture of church membership. But the basis for the ideals I express are in the Bible and not my flawed opinion. The Bible gives us a picture of what a fully mature believer might look like, though no such person exists other than Christ Himself. In that regard, I paint the picture of a perfect church member, realizing that no one will ever match that standard. But as Paul said, we press on toward the goal.

JM: The model for the contemporary evangelical church in the US has been the target of much critique lately. Much of this arises from repeated stories of pastoral abuse of authority and church discipline run amuck. Church discipline and church membership are tightly connected in many churches. What does your book offer to church leaders, members, and attenders who have been burned by this type of experience in a local church? 

TR: In simple terms, there are two parts to church discipline: corrective church discipline and formative church discipline. Corrective church discipline refers to those times when congregations biblically confront and attempt to redeem members who are openly sinning without repentance. Certainly pastoral abuse of authority can take place in such a context, but that does not mean churches should stop practicing church discipline. Indeed, they should discipline those who abuse their authority. I Am a Church Member falls in the category of formative church discipline. It offers biblical paths before a member strays. It is therefore more instructional than corrective.

JM: Many who critique younger generations of evangelical Christians focus on their “consumer mentality” toward the local church. You lead an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which allows member churches a significant amount of sovereignty, autonomy, and independence. This structure can seemingly make it challenging to hold Southern Baptist pastors and church leaders accountable for their actions. Respond to the suggestion that consumerism toward the church may be the only recourse many believe they have against rogue pastors and church leaders in this type of structure. Explain how church membership could (or should) combat this issue.

TR: If you are referring to consumerism as the option to change churches in the event of leaders abusing authority without constraints, I am all for the freedom to move to congregations where such abuse does not take place. The vast majority of members, however, change churches or leave churches because of a sense of entitlement. They see church membership to be similar to country club membership. In other words, the organization exists to cater to the needs and whims of the members. My book is an attempt to counter such a “me first” attitude with an “others first” attitude.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.