Thom S. Rainer. I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference. Nashville: B&H, 2013. 96 pp. $12.99.
The present statistics are compelling. The church is shrinking, not growing. Point the finger in any direction: secular culture, godless politics, hypocritical members, uncaring pastors. In the end, though, each church member must take responsibility.
I am a church member. I bet you are, too. But are we the kind of members who will turn the tide of these dismal statistics? I’ve been dissatisfied with a church. I bet you have, too. Dissatisfaction is as old as Eden. It starts with making my desires and my preferences primary. This attitude, of course, presents itself in many ways. We think and say things like: “I just don’t connect to the message.” “The music is too ______.” “No one says ‘Hi!’ to me.” “Our small group feels contrived.” “There are so many hypocrites.”
Do these examples sound judgmental? I hope not. I’m simply admitting what I’ve said.
Put simply, each of us either thinks biblically about church membership or we don’t. We either serve or we are self-serving. We’re either functional members or dysfunctional complainers.
I Am a Church Member prods us by asking, “Which kind of member am I?” Through this book we undergo a robust church membership assessment in which Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, invites us to carefully and prayerfully take six pledges. During this assessment, Scripture shapes Rainer’s wisdom, all the while fixing the reader’s gaze on Christ, the head of the church. And with each pledge, he pushes us toward self-examination, discerning the difference between dissatisfied and functional membership in the church.
In a word, the difference between the two is attitude. Dissatisfaction occurs when skewed expectations and misaligned understandings supplant the church’s purpose. Rainer’s country club membership image was helpful here. Country club membership includes perks and privileges. It involves a customer service mentality. It’s not “I serve” but “I get served.” All too often, unfortunately, we import this notion of membership over to the church.
To correct this membership misconception, then, we need an attitude overhaul, since attitude alters our identity.
A functional church member is characterized by love, generosity, and service. In order become—and remain—such a member, Rainer exhorts, “Give abundantly and serve without hesitation” (14). Indeed, functional church members are characterized by attitudes of unity, service, and prayer.
Even more, church members are unified; they detest gossip and cultivate forgiveness. Rainer exhorts the reader to nip gossip in the bud and to gently rebuke those who are a source of it. Concerning forgiveness, he writes, “Unity in the church will not happen if members have unforgiving hearts” (28). In churches full of imperfect sinners, forgiveness is often required, and it begins with and is upheld by Christ himself.
We all have the propensity to make church about our preferences and desires, and self-serving attitudes are often the product of an inward-focused church. You want this book for the research Rainer shares about such churches; indeed, it will help you diagnose if you’re in one. Don’t run, however, if you are; become a change agent and put yourself last, not first. Rainer commends this kind of patience: “True joy means giving up our rights and preferences and serving everyone else” (36).
Church members also pray for their leaders’ ministry, family, protection, and health. Our enemy is intent on ensnaring church leaders. Unfortunately, he often succeeds. “We should not be surprised, then, when we hear of a pastor’s moral failure,” Rainer writes. “We are grieved and heartbroken, but not surprised” (49). Intercession for church leaders therefore is important, as it insulates them against some kinds of temptation.
God’s Stake in His Church
Thankfully, despite our failed past attempts at being a functional church member, God has a heightened interest in overhauling and altering our dismal attitudes for his glory and the church’s good. When he turns dissatisfied members into functional, unified, serving, and praying ones, the difference is striking. And one by one, the church gets transformed.
But all of this change is purposeless if it cannot be sustained. Functional members must reproduce functional members who continually treasure God’s church.
Rainer posits a few ways this reproduction may be easier to achieve. First, functional members must lead their families well. This involves praying together, worshiping together, and fostering love for the congregation. Second, functional members understand their membership as a gift. “It’s not a legalistic obligation. It’s not country club perks. It’s not a license for entitlement,” Rainer writes. “It’s a gift. A gift from God. A gift that we should treasure with great joy and anticipation” (71). This entails full engagement in the life of the church. Third, functional members uphold the importance of local churches. By appealing particularly to the Spirit’s work in Acts, Rainer soundly resolves this dispute—vague commitment to the universal church is insufficient. As he concludes, “The Bible is clear that we are to be connected to a specific church in a specific context” (72).
Take Up and Pledge
With brief books there’s always the temptation to read too quickly, ultimately leaving the reader with an ineffectual experience. Don’t let this happen with this book! Linger over these six chapters. Each one ends with a pledge and discussion questions, and I encourage readers to find a group or a friend with whom to use these as prompts for further reflection. In fact, churches would especially profit from using this resource in small group and discipling contexts.
Perhaps you’ve picked up on it by now, but I used to be a dissatisfied church member. Though I’m glad it’s behind me, the transition certainly wasn’t easy. Nevertheless, I probably would have made it much sooner had this book been around circa 2000. Thankfully, it’s available now. Don’t miss out; benefit from Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member.
Joey Cochran served as the high school pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for four years before transitioning to serve as the resource pastor at a future church plant in Chicago. He is a graduate of Dallas Seminary. Joey blogs regularly at JTCochran.com. You can follow him on Twitter.