The Country Club Comes To The Church
I worked at a country club in high school and during my first year of college. It was a decent workplace, and I served in several roles. I wore a snazzy suit as I greeted people in the dining room and bartered for large banquets, like weddings. Working at the country club afforded me a unique insight into some of the elite structures of the community. I shook hands and had conversations with movers and shakers. Several members attempted to poach me from the country club to their business. All in all, it was a good work environment and a great place to network. The country club was exclusive, but I enjoyed my employment.
But there are several observations I want to make about country club life that is similar to some local churches, and these observations about the church are not flattering. These observations are born out of exclusivity.
Spoken and Unspoken Rules
When you join a country club, you agree to a list of written and spoken rules. For example, you will pay your dues, respect the staff, and not commit random acts of violence on the premises. When you sign and date the membership document, the rules are clear, and the rules exist for the betterment of the community. A local church can have a similar effect if it has a well-defined membership covenant. If someone becomes a member, there might be defined expectations such as giving and serving the local church. All of this is great because when the “rules” are well defined, the community expectations are equally defined.
But when a person joins a country club, there is a list of unspoken rules. Many of these rules are created out of the exclusivity of members. These rules tend to be more pervasive and shape the culture of the community. These rules pressure new members to conform to the shape of the community. Unspoken rules can impact language and coerce behavior. It is not unusual to find long-term members in a country club (and a church) quietly requiring conformity to the unspoken rules. Here are several examples of unspoken (and unhelpful) rules in a country club and the church. I lay them out so that local churches can avoid the pitfalls of the unspoken rules. Here is the bottom line:
(Full disclosure. What I am about to recount is from 20+ years of observing churches. At present, I have the privilege of attending a church where I do not see the following unspoken rules. I know I am biased. But I like to think I am honest about my bias and accurate about what I am observing.)
If you want to be a maitre’d at a country club, you need to know the unspoken rules. For example, table #1, the first booth on the left side of the dining room, was always reserved for Arnold. Arnold never called in the reservation, but years of membership afforded him the unspoken “right” to table #1. You did not want to deal with Arnold if he walked in and table #1 was occupied.
There can be a similar effect in the local church. Perhaps row five is reserved for the Johnson clan. Their names are not on the chairs, but everyone eventually figures out the rule. And one day, you anticipate that awkward moment when a few guests arrive before the Johnson family and sit in row five. When the Johnsons show up, they are thrown off their game because their seats are occupied. The Johnsons are polite and adjust (they sit in row six), but you can tell that their unmet expectation frustrates their morning. The vital principle to learn from Arnold is that the people of God must hold many expectations loosely, especially preferential expectations. Allow me to push the ball down the court a little more.
Do Not Mess With Those Kids
Here is another comparison from working at the country club. It did not take long to figure out that some families were “off-limits.” They were untouchable. Here is what I am mean. The country club had a nice-sized pool. It was the place for members to go during the summer. But during the summer, some kids were off the hook, and they would ruin the pool experience for others. But here was the problem. The kids were beyond correction from the pool staff. If you were to tell the wrong child to stop doing cannonballs in the shallow end of the pool, you might find yourself in the crosshairs of the wrong adult member. It clearly indicated that the kids ruled the home and the country club pool.
Local churches that have been around for decades can have a similar dynamic. They can have legacy families. On the one hand, it’s beautiful that grandma and grandpa are a part of the church, and their son is a deacon, and then his daughter is a leader in the youth ministry, and her son gets checked into the kid’s ministry on Sunday. It is wonderful to see families grow together in a local church. My in-laws attend Redemption Hill. I love the fact that my children see them worship Jesus every Sunday. The other side of the coin is that legacy families can become the untouchables in the church. When little Jonny runs his mouth, it might be intimidating to tell his parents because Jonny and his family have been members for 20 years. Little Jonny is not doing a cannonball in the baptismal, but his sinful little heart is creating a cannonball with his mouth.
I understand that because of sin, it can be messy when a bunch of people gets together. There is not a perfect Christian and certainly not a perfect church. But, in this respect, the local church should not be like the country club. There is complete equality between the pastor’s kid and the other kid that has not been around longer than what it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Perhaps we can learn from the apostle Peter when he said in Acts 10,
Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.– Acts 10:34–35
The local church does have a hierarchical structure. Christ ➡️ Edler ➡️ Deacon. But a hierarchical structure does not displace equality. Peter was an apostle. Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19). Yet, what did he learn? God does not show partiality.
The Unpaid Supervisors
I have fond memories of working at the country club. So many members raked in seven figures a year, and they treated me with respect and care. I’ll never forget those people. They enjoyed the country club’s benefits and treated me with kindness. So many were not pretentious or proud.
But some members had to tell me everything wrong with the food, the lighting, the color of the carpet, and their crappy round of golf. If the annual membership dues went up, there would be an email, a protest, and a complaint submitted to the waitstaff in the dining room.
The local church can have similar folks. There is a protest because single-ply toilet paper is used in the restroom when there should be double-ply. A pastor might hear a complaint that the worship music is soft and then hear another complaint that the music is too loud—all of this from two people sitting two rows from each other on the same Sunday. If a drum set is introduced for the first time, the pastor should put an “out of office”reply on the email.
These unpaid supervisors have a sense of privilege. The privilege was never given to them, but they assumed it for themselves. But more to the point, country club Christianity has difficulty laying down preferences. Secondary and tertiary preferences are made primary, and when this happens, the church’s mission is pushed off its trajectory. Here is what needs to be learned. Living with a church family may require flexing for other family members. Flexing will require Christ-like humility, but being like Christ isn’t so bad, is it?
By nature, a country club has a hyper-focus on its members. I am not going to hate on that when a member pays thousands of dollars a year in dues. But because of the exclusive nature of a country club, it can become insular. There can be a lack of awareness of others. Some churches have a similar culture.
I visited a local church after moving to Iowa and before Redemption Hill Church began to meet on Sunday mornings. It is a prominent church in the community, so I felt the need to check it out. It was a vibrant church. Everyone was talking to someone. Everyone was talking to someone except me. I walked into the church and then into the auditorium without a “hello” or handshake, and I left the same way. Now, I want to be careful not to stigmatize a church based on one experience. But there is a lesson to be learned. First, it’s good that members of the same church enjoy talking to each other. We call this fellowship. But Christians need to be aware that our fellowship is not a barrier to new people who desire to enter our fellowship, even if it is for a moment. The church must avoid becoming insular and strive to be open to anyone who walks through the door. Jane may need to pause her conversation with her best friend Julie to meet the new gal Jill. But that should not be a problem. Jane and Julie will send each other 100 text messages by the end of the day.
Demolishing the Country Club Church
Country clubs exist as a place for the privileged. I am not knocking country clubs. Knock yourself out if you have the cash and you benefit from its benefits. As I have said, I met and knew many great people who are country club members. I would benefit from networking at a country club if I worked in the corporate world. But the church is not a country club. It is not a place where a single person has a special privilege. It is not a place where you can give enough money to obtain reserved seating. It is not where unruly children can get away with cannonballs that splash the elderly. No. The church is where Christians forego any sense of privilege for the sake of others. The church is where parents take sin and sanctification seriously and teach their children to do the same. The church is where giving up your preferred seat is easy because you love that other image-bearer of God. Country Club Christianity is a sickness in the broader evangelical church. But the solution is to humbly open doors, extend hospitality, and focus on the needs of others before focusing on the needs of the self.
I thank God Redemption Hill Church does not have a country club mentality. Again, I know I am biased, but I believe my observation is accurate. But the goal is never to regress into a country club church. Instead, the church must be a place where the gospel is preached, disciples are made, and everyone lives for the glory of God.