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The Church as Club: My Response to Frank Matthew Powell

I was recently directed to Frank Matthew Powell’s blog post
Dear American Church…I Am Not Renewing My Membership This Year.  He’s touched on a subject I’ve mon occasion but now need to take up in earnest: the church as a club.

Most people who decry the church becoming a private club have never spent much time in one.  That’s not my problem: I come from a long line of people who spent a lot more time in private clubs than in the church.  This tradition goes back to the nineteenth century, so no nouveaux riches jokes either.  So when I read Powell’s points about the church being a club, I look at it from the standpoint of “is he really being fair to the clubs”?  Or, perhaps, to the church?

So without further introduction let me address his points on his idea (and mine) on the similarities and differences between churches and clubs:

I am not sure Jesus died for a club.  If you were or are Reformed, you actually are, as Reformed theology tells us that Jesus died only for the elect.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS POUR TIME AND RESOURCES BACK INTO THEMSELVES.   If it’s an equity club, or if it’s owned collectively by the membership (as opposed to, say, the developer) that’s true.  The problem with that (as my mother, of blessed memory, used to point out) is that the membership ends up spending a great deal of money (collected through assessments of the entire membership) on self-aggrandising improvements driven by the “big wigs” in the club.

It’s certainly true that churches have all of this.  That’s one reason many of our churches have expensive physical plant that’s underutilised and hard to pay for.  The obvious “club” solution to the problem would be to keep control in the hands of our Developer, i.e, Jesus Christ.  If we do that, it’s great.  The problem we have is that those in leadership think that they speak with his voice univocally, with no need for advice from the membership.  That’s the situation in churches such as the RCC (although, sadly, elsewhere too).  Somewhere between the two extremes the church–and the club for that matter–need to operate.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS VALUE COMFORT AND SECURITY.  To some extent, that’s the mission of the church: to help bring people the comfort and security that only life in Jesus Christ can bring.  So why is it unreasonable to expect the church to excel in this?

PEOPLE IN CLUBS KEEP CONVERSATIONS IN THE SHALLOW END OF THE POOL.  That they do, indeed.  I would say, however, that the most memorable churches where the shallowness of the conversation matched that of the club are churches where a good part of the membership also holds membership in clubs.  (Episcopalians, I’m talking to you).  We also have those who make life superficial via their theology, but that’s another post…

PEOPLE IN CLUBS SEEK TO MAKE THEIR CLUB THE BEST AROUND.  Competition between clubs is an interesting subject.  My great-grandfather was a member (and Commodore) of the Lincoln Park Yacht Club before he and others switched to the Chicago Yacht Club, where he’d be Commodore (as was his son) and my family members for the next seventy years.  The emergence of the Lincoln Park club forced the Chicago Yacht Club to reinvigourate itself, and the two eventually merged.

One of the things that differentiates American churches from their European counterparts is that the former work in a more competitive environment, which is one reason they’ve flourished the way they have.  We should always want our churches to be the best and work towards that end.  The place where churches get sidetracked is in losing focus on the mission and what we’re supposed to be “best” at.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS ONLY INVITE PEOPLE INTO THEIR LIVES THAT LOOK LIKE THEM.   That’s true, although the definition of “looks like” has changed over the years.  In the past we had clubs driven by ethnic and religious restrictions, which was very much the case when I grew up in Palm Beach and is still true somewhat today.  Those have loosened in private clubs, although our elites, clubbed or not, have other enforced uniformities. The one thing that private clubs do demand is economic conformity, which they do through the dues and admission process.

I think we need to be more reasonable about this: in spite of the Pauline ideal of all things to all men, there are very few Evangelical churches which actually pull this off.  Most of the ones that do are megachurches, and then we hear whining about their shortcomings.  What most churches engage in is more of a “targeted marketing” type of approach, where the local church is aimed at a certain ethnic and socio-economic group, consciously or otherwise. Those of us who have worked in multiethnic denominations (an opportunity for which I am very grateful) know that truly multicultural churches are certainly doable but take a great deal of care.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS ARE DIVISIVE AND ARGUMENTATIVE.  Club people are generally not this way unless either they a) have a lot of money on the round they’re playing, b) three sheets to the wind or c) both.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS VALUE KEEPING EVERYBODY HAPPY.  It’s funny he brought this up, because recently my wife and I brought a friend from the Middle East to our church.  His observation?  He was impressed at how happy everyone was at the end of the service.  In the mosque, everyone was sad.  (One reason Kievan Rus didn’t adopt Islam as their religion was that the Muslims they saw were sad; the Orthodox, not a notoriously “happy clappy” bunch, beat them in that respect).  Why shouldn’t people be happy in church?  Do we want to replicate the mosque?

With those points out of the way, let’s take a few more lessons from the club.

CLUBS HELP YOU MEET IMPORTANT PEOPLE.  When my great-grandfather and his fellow yachtsmen were working on getting the Canada’s Cup back, they got to meet the Governor-General.  (And, with apologies to David Lloyd-Jones, we did get it back).  The mission of the church in part is to get people to meet the most important person, Jesus Christ.

CLUBS ARE VERY IMPORTANT IN A CLOSED SOCIETY.  Evangelicals have always bristled at the closed nature of private clubs, and churches which seemingly operate like one.  That’s because American Evangelicals have always had the luxury of operating in an open society where an open church works best and we can give the feeling of being “mainstream”.  Well, unless you live in a cave (and I suspect that many of you do) you know that real Evangelical Christianity is not mainstream.  And now many others know that too. With society’s values slipping out of our grasp and the supposedly “levelling” Internet becoming a conduit for just about everything about us being sucked up by the state, unless we plan to be an extra in Apple’s 1984 Superbowl commercial we need to plan for a more closed society, as our bretheren in places like China experience.  Under those conditions entering in may be more difficult, which is a club-like experience.  The Church in the Roman Empire made people go through the catechumenate before baptism and for the most part didn’t worship in the open until after the Edict of Milan, so this isn’t anything new.

THE CLUB AND THE CHURCH CAN BE COMPETITORS.  The aforementioned Episcopalians notwithstanding, in many ways clubs and churches are competitors, seeking to fulfil similar needs and wants.  For many it’s a “both/and” proposition, but for some it’s an “either/or” matter.

I’m not sure that this diatribe will get Mr. Powell where he wants to go.  I’m aware, teaching as I do at the undergraduate level, that (with exceptions) Millenials have been socialised differently, which is one reason churches have struggled to bring them in.  Much of the “back door” problem can be attributed to the way churches sequester their young people in their own church, which makes adult church an alien experience when they’re ejected into it along with their high school diploma.  But trashing the club, or any other social institution, won’t bring us success.  American Christianity has always been a part of civic life, and as that civic life has been crowded out getting people in church is more and more of a struggle.  To address that we will need some institutional shifts, and perhaps there may be a few lessons from those exclusivistic institutions which are private clubs.


4 Replies to “The Church as Club: My Response to Frank Matthew Powell”

  1. Don,

    I assume the Chicago Yacht Club will be actively recruiting members in Australia and New Zealand in months to come? There must be dozens of unemployed Anzacs from the Nigerian, Saudi, Qatari and similar Americas Cup contenders looking for a home.




    1. Actually, Canada’s Cup is a different competition, run in the Great Lakes. And, AFAIK, CYC hasn’t been involved in Canada’s Cup for a long time. The last Canada’s Cup was won by the U.S., a club on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan won it.


  2. Don,

    I was assuming that it was run between the RCYC and Chicago, as per the rules on your site. But if the States currently has it, then Google is out of date.

    The reference to Chicago shopping for Anzacs was inspired by the Detroit Police Force, who have an annual tug-of-war against the Toronto Police Service at a picnic held here or there. Canada managed to win it for something like twenty-five years straight, but one year the Americans turned up looking suspiciously bulky: they’d deputized the entire Detroit Lions.




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