The word “member” was, in its original biblical usage, a very healthy, organic term.
It’s found 45 times in the New Testament, with only nine instances in the gospels. Paul uses “member” in his use of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12, describing the church as one body with many members.
This was a beautiful description of diverse people intricately connecting through their common commitment to Christ.
But then Modernity happened. Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, blending church and state.
Over the centuries, while mixing culture, government and church together, the church came to see itself more like an organization than an organism.
Along with this shift, the word “member” took on new meaning. Sacred and secular organizations and institutions now describe their constituents as members.
Largely, membership is about the rights and privileges of an organizational connection.
When one pays membership dues, then one has access to the privileges these dues provide, including the services of the professionals employed by the organization.
Fortunately, there is another word available to we Christ-followers. The word “disciple” shows up in the New Testament 263 times, with 235 of these references in the gospels.
Disciple is Jesus’ favorite word for describing his followers. He never uses the phrase “church member” (in the Bible as we have it).
So, what does it matter? What’s the difference what we call ourselves and other Jesus-people?
The power of language is why this matters. Does anyone still believe language itself is neutral?
Language itself powerfully shapes our self-perceptions and identities. Here is one example: Members volunteer, while disciples serve.
We hear church leaders from every denomination complaining about the low level of volunteerism among their members. But isn’t that the nature of membership?
Some members volunteer while many more sit back and enjoy the perks of membership. Even more, those who volunteer may do so for a while, but not indefinitely.
Just like we evaluate our decision to renew our annual membership in organizations, we also evaluate our inclination toward volunteering.
Disciples are different. Serving is very close to the heart of discipleship.
As Jesus prepared the original disciples for his departure, he gave them one more lesson about what it means to follow him (John 13), washing their feet.
This is what disciples do – they serve. They don’t question whether they will volunteer. Serving is intrinsic to their identity as disciples, so they don’t question whether they will serve; they simply do.
At this point in the church’s history, it’s fascinating to watch congregations of every denomination reach back into our collective history to recover our identities as disciples. This is one of the big shifts in church culture, moving from member to disciple identity.
Perhaps we no longer need words like “church member” or “volunteer” in our church-related vocabularies.
Instead, let’s pursue serving God through our church and in the world since service is intrinsic to our identity as disciples.
Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his personal blog.