Parishioner, Member, or Partner?

What are we supposed to call a person who belongs to a particular church? That’s an interesting question to consider since the term has changed over time. For a long time when churches were organized by perishes, the people were called “parishioners.” In a time when there was less denominational diversity and when the relationship between nation and church was stronger (think of Anglicanism in England, Lutheranism in Germany, and Reformed Churches in  Holland), everyone who lived in a certain region was thought to belong and be a part of the local parish church. As places like the United States became more denominationally diverse, people living in the same region might belong to a variety of local churches. So churches began to start using the term “membership” to refer to the particular body of people who belonged to a particular church and “member” to refer to one person in that body.

Recently it has become fashionable for local churches to designate those who belong to their local church “partners” rather than “members.” The thinking here is related to how the term “member” can be and has been distorted. In our culture, we can be members of country clubs, volunteer organizations, athletic clubs, consumer advantage programs, and pools, just to name a few. The term conveys a special status possessed by someone who has certain privileges as a consumer. Given how the term “member” is so frequently used, it is understandable that no church wants people to think that this is what is meant when a person joins a local congregation. Belonging to a church is not about possessing privilege or about being an insider with exalted status. Jesus didn’t save us to bring us into a community where we could just sit there and enjoy special perks not afforded to others. The church isn’t supposed to be a community of consumers.

So it is understandable that many churches have begun shying away from using “membership” and “member” language and replacing it with “partners.” To be a partner suggests that you have joined a team of people who share a mission together. Now this sounds perfect, right? This is what churches who want to be on mission are all about. By rejecting the term “member,” these churches are not just leaving behind a confusing and somewhat elitist sounding term but are actually fostering a shift from a consumer mentality to a mission mentality. Churches making this shift see this as a move toward greater biblical faithfulness. This is how the thinking seems to go.

There is also something else going on in this shift from “member” to “partner” though. Many who have been frustrated with the church for its failure to understand its mission have distanced ourselves from the forms of ministry that have dominated Evangelicalism for decades. And much of this shift from “traditional” parish and attractional forms of church to missional forms is good. But abandoning “membership” for “partnership” isn’t one of the shifts we need to make.

The problem with this shift is that it overlooks or ignores the fact that the Apostle Paul believed “member” to be a perfectly good term to use to denote a person who belongs to a particular local church. The body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that the church community is the body of Christ and that each person is a member of that body empowered by the Spirit to carry out Jesus’ mission in the world. Yes, it is true that the term “member” has many other connotations in other settings. But we don’t need to toss a perfectly good word because of this, especially when that word is part of a larger biblical metaphor for the church. Rather than chuck it, denigrate it with a smug attitude, and replace it with another term that isn’t used in Scripture to describe those belonging to a local congregation, we should keep it and continually teach what the Bible says about what it means. Now before you object, I am aware that Christians are called “partners” in the New Testament (Philippians 1:3-6). I like that word, and I think it is a good one we should keep and use. But the term is not used in the particular way some churches today are using it. Sure, when we work together with Christians, particularly through financial support or by traveling on mission trips together, we are partners in the gospel. But there is something richer about the term “member” because of the body metaphor.

To be a member of a body is to have an organic and functional unity with others. It communicates belonging, common mission, unity, and shared life. A body is a living thing, and we are all part of Christ’s body through the Spirit. Furthermore, there is another important biblical metaphor for the church—the family of God. And guess what? We are members of God’s family, not just Christ’s body. There is a richness to the term “member” that Paul unpacks in his metaphors for the church that is lacking with the term “partner.” And I don’t mean to denigrate the term “partner” at all. I think it is used in a different context, an important context. But let’s conform our use of these terms with Scripture so that we don’t miss the richness of what we have and what we are called to as Christians.

So what are we supposed to call a person who belongs to a particular church then? We cannot go back to “parishioners,” and frankly, I don’t see any reason why we went there in the first place (That is another discussion. No need to need to get into the issues with Christendom here). There are no good reasons why we should abandon “member.” Sure, some people might get the wrong idea, but honestly, that is true of “partner” as well. A partner can be a lawyer with a firm, a lover of the same sex, a co-owner of a business, and a work out buddy, just to name a few. It certainly suggests a co-laboring, but the body of Christ is much more than a group of co-laborers. In fact, it is because we are a body and a family that we co-labor. Having been united to Christ through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, our very life is in Christ as his people. We belong to one another just as we belong to God. So let’s stick with the term Paul uses and work to clarify what that means so that we don’t reduce the local church to one thing and lose sight of the richness of her life in Christ.

The Rotating Pulpit

One of the interesting features of life in Trinity Church is that you really never know who will be preaching on a given Sunday. The responsibility of proclaiming the word of God to the people of God is shared among the elders, so the pastors of Trinity Church take turns preaching the Scriptures. Most of the time, one pastor will preach for three or four weeks at a time, and then another pastor will take over for a season. This may make answering the question, “Who’s the preacher?” a bit more difficult when members are asked by those curious about the church, but the elders have deliberately adopted this practice for a variety of reasons as we seek to shepherd the flock faithfully.

1. We share preaching responsibilities to avoid inadvertently creating a culture of celebrity.

In everyday life, celebrity is everywhere. The general strategy at work in the world to gather a following is to platform charismatic, attractive, dynamic, relational spokespeople who are able to attract the masses with their unique skills for communication and leadership. But the church is a counter-cultural community created by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The mission of the church is not to form a cult of personality around any individual but to gather repentant sinners in worship of the Lord Jesus. This means that the word of the gospel, and not any specific leader, is to be central in the witness and ministry of the church.

Many churches agree with this assessment and adopt a plurality of elders (leadership by multiple pastors) to guard against the dangerous dynamics of power, pride, and pastor-worship that can develop when one person stands above all the others. Yet, even where a plurality of elders exists, if there is a singular public figure who delivers the word every week, a culture of celebrity can slip in the back door. One pastor becomes the face of the church, the voice of the congregation, the minister. The temptation for members is to associate the ministry of the word with this individual’s ministry of the word and to identify following Christ with following this shepherd as he preaches Christ. If that particular person were to leave or die or disqualify himself from ministry, the church would lose the figure around whom they’ve organized the life of their community.

Because people naturally want a charismatic leader to claim as the leader of their movement, and because pastors naturally desire to be that man, we elected to guard against that temptation by alternating which shepherd is before the congregation giving the word. There is only one man whose ministry is essential to the life of the church, the true Shepherd of the sheep, the risen Christ.

2. We share preaching responsibilities to give the church a variety of voices and perspectives.

Every Christian has certain parts of Scripture that are especially meaningful, certain emphases that they constantly return to for comfort, joy, and motivation. And in much the same way every pastor has characteristic ways of exploring, framing, explaining, illustrating, and applying the Scriptures and the Christian life. Even though each pastor is seeking to hear and receive the whole counsel of God and grow in the ways we understand the word and minister in balanced and well-rounded ways, we inevitably have weak points and blind spots. If any one of us were to exclusively preach each week, the congregation would likely grow to share in our emphases and our blindnesses.

One of the advantages of having multiple preachers is that the church has a chorus of voices and perspectives to teach the word and speak to the heart. Two pastors may preach very similar truths from very similar texts and yet express the doctrines, commands, and prayers of Scripture in remarkably different ways. Each shepherd has different life experiences he is bringing to the table, different manners of speaking and methods of communicating, and different ways of illustrating the text and processing God’s word in his own heart. When diversity in preaching helps the church develop a fuller understanding of God’s Law and gospel, then this diversity can be a blessing that equips Christ’s bride for greater faithfulness.

3. We share preaching responsibilities to allow shepherds to be fed in corporate worship.

Many pastors find that publicly proclaiming the glories of God in the gospel to his people is one of the great joys they experience. But these same pastors need to receive the word as well. When there is only one designated preacher, everyone in the church may be nourished by the word, challenged in their assumptions, called to repentance in unexpected ways, comforted in their affliction, and exhorted to new forms of Christ-exalting faithfulness—everyone, that is, except him. Of course, part of developing a sermon is taking the time to sit in God’s word and let the Spirit expose sin and minister the gospel to us, but there is a distinct benefit to being among God’s people and receiving the preached word from someone else who has soaked in Scripture and is ministering it to the church.

By sharing in the task of preaching, the elders have the opportunity to be a blessing to one another and to receive blessing from another. Each of us has seasons when we can hear the preached word in a way that grants insight, offers new perspectives, lays bare sins of which we weren’t aware, and offers comfort in the cross and motivation for holiness and witness in our own lives.

4. We share preaching responsibilities to avoid the typical forms of exhaustion that plague pastoral ministry.

“Burnout” is a buzzword in pastoral and leadership circles. The term refers to the exhaustion and frustration that result when a pastor works and ministers with no relief or rest. It’s easy to see how this could be a real danger for those who are alone in preaching on a weekly basis. Sermon preparation by itself can take twenty hours or more of study, prayer, and writing. Combine that with administration concerns, home groups, pastoral care, hospitality, meeting with members, and the everyday obligations of life in a family and community and you’ve got a full schedule indeed. It’s hard to see how one person could navigate all of these responsibilities on an ongoing basis without permitting one dimension to suffer or be neglected altogether.

Because we alternate preaching, no single pastor finds himself solely responsible for everything. When one preaches, another often takes the lead in other shepherding roles to free him up for study and preparation, and when one isn’t preaching, he can afford to earnestly give himself to all the duties besides sermon writing that are essential to shepherding the flock. The twenty hours that would have been devoted to preparing to preach can be devoted to sharing life with believers, focusing on the home group, being available for members, coordinating various aspects of church life, and ministering in other faithful ways. A shepherd must be more than a preacher, and sharing preaching responsibilities ensures that each pastor is able to fulfill the role of shepherd without consistently neglecting other aspects of the role. And the breaks from preaching provide times for reinvigoration so that when the time comes to publicly proclaim the word again, there is a renewed excitement and energy for the task.

These are but four of the reasons we have adopted a “rotating pulpit” at Trinity Church. Our prayer is that God would guard his people from temptation and equip them for ministry and faithfulness as different pastors feed the sheep with the word of Christ.