Privileges and Responsibilities

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Membership has its privileges. 

That’s the marketing slogan American Express copyrighted in 1980, the beginning of what became a “what’s-in-it-for-me” American decade.

As one would-be church member asked me while I was planting a Presbyterian congregation during that time, “What do I get if I join?”

The first time I replied to that question I was surprised by the sheer dullness of what I said.  Presbyterian church members are empowered to vote at called meetings of the congregation and are eligible for election and ordination as elders and deacons.

Aside from a few esoteric privileges of jurisprudence, that’s about it.

The pastoral secret, of course, is that the traditional “gains” of membership chiefly belong to the church.

Now we get to count you in our annual report, your name has been added to our stewardship campaign files, we have license to canvass you to teach Sunday School, and from now on you can’t slip away from church involvement without serious pangs of guilt.

But the real issue has never been about privileges. 

It’s always been about responsibilities.

Years ago, as I said my goodbyes to those attending a particular New Members class – the very meeting in which I sought to “close the deal” in bringing new people aboard – I noticed that two young couples had stayed behind. 

They were talking intently to one another.  Neither of these couples had ever belonged to a congregation.  They looked worried.

“Can I answer any questions for you?” I asked.  “Well,” they stammered, “we’re not quite sure we’re ready to make such a huge commitment.”

“What’s troubling you, exactly?” I replied.  “There’s attendance, for one thing,” said one of the husbands.  “I’m not sure we can be here every Sunday of every year.”

It was one of the most purely idealistic statements I had ever heard. 

In truth, perfect attendance is not an indicator of spiritual maturity, nor is it particularly easy to pull off in the modern world.   Nevertheless, they were wrestling with it. 

And I managed to spoil the moment.

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” I assured them.  I watched the anxiety flee from their faces as I described what amounted to the least common denominator of church involvement – the kind of behavior in God’s people to which I had accommodated myself years earlier.

They smiled.  They joined the church.  They attended only occasionally.    

I wish I could have a second shot at that conversation.  I wish I had been wise enough to honor the genuine tension of that moment and their sincere contemplation of actively engaging themselves in the work of the Lord.  It occurred to me about that time that the local Rotary Club, to which I belonged, was asking me to make a greater commitment of involvement – and promising swift retribution if I fell short – than I had ever dreamed of demanding of church members.

And I was the leader of the community pledged to transform history. 

It’s not about the privileges – “What’s in it for me, and what’s the least I can do to keep my membership card?” 

It’s all about the responsibilities – “What’s God’s call on my life, and how can I give my very best to make the greatest difference in this broken world?”

And here’s the beautiful reality: 

People are far more motivated by the second question than the first one.