The idea of church membership strikes many as strange. I chat regularly with worshipers whose eyebrows shoot up at the mention of officially joining a church.
“You mean like the gym?” they ask.
These aren’t non-Christians or nominal believers. These folks attend church, participate in programs, and serve. But when asked to officially join their church?
“That sounds sort of elitist, doesn’t it?”
“I thought everyone was welcome at church, so why do we need membership?”
“What do I get if I join?”
“Is there a test?”
Confusion and apathy over church membership is increasingly common in North American churches. Pastors lament declining “enrollment” and a wave of religious commitment-phobia that was uncommon a generation ago. This trend goes beyond the exodus of people abandoning church altogether; it takes place inside many congregations among some of the most faithful attenders. New church plants increasingly choose not to implement membership while established churches consider jettisoning their once stalwart programs. Despite the drift away from membership, it is essential that pastors consider the vital role church membership can play in the life of a congregation.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul exhorts believers to share spiritual gifts and reminds them that they ought to depend on one another. He offers similar instruction in Romans 12 using the human body to explain how the body of Christ should function. We cannot live out God’s kingdom purposes alone; congregations need everyone involved in order to flourish.
To participate fully in congregational life is to recognize that God has called each person to use their unique set of gifts and talents for the common good. Doing this well means individuals within faith communities are accountable to one another (James 5:16; Eph. 4:25; Gal. 6:2). It requires a system of leadership, direction, teaching, discipline, and a set of rules and practices on how the community will carry out its shared life. The decision to “become a member” of a congregation means a person agrees to live within this system while contributing to the ethos and development of it.
Becoming a member of a church is a significant decision, more significant than membership in any of the little rewards programs that litter our lives. Hundreds of groups and clubs invite us to become a member in just a few clicks. “Like” this, “follow” that, or enter a few lines of basic information, and we’re in. Joining a church is completely different. It should be a solemn decision, one made after a period of prayer and consideration.
To join my home church, individuals must step forward and tell someone in leadership, “I want to join. I want be part of the life of this community.” We invite them to a series of classes where we discuss their personal faith journey, our posture toward serving others, and the theology and practices of our congregational life. These classes become small fellowship groups and participants spend time together learning, sharing, and questioning.
Like most, our congregation is filled with busy people trying to balance work, family, school, and the chaos of everyday life. Much of their time is already earmarked for other endeavors. We recognize this but boldly ask them to give us some of their sacred time. We believe in our church and what God is doing there.
At the conclusion of their classes, we ask participants to stand before our congregation during a worship service and respond to a set of questions that reflect their faith and desire to do life in this community. The whole congregation stands with them and agrees to welcome them into the fold. This agreement is deliberate. Are those of us who are already here willing to walk alongside them? Are we willing to befriend them? To learn more about them? To perhaps disagree and dispute matters with them? To help carry their burdens? To make ourselves accountable to them and they to us? This is no small moment and joining our church requires something of both parties.
On “New Member Weekends” there is a renewed sense of energy in the building. New members often express great joy and invite extended family and friends to come celebrate and worship with them. When crafted with grace and anticipation, membership programs serve as rites of passage in congregations. They mark a distinct moment in the life of a Christian. So, why is the knee-jerk response to church membership often one of apathy or disdain?
At least three major trends have impacted church membership today:
Trend #1: Consumer Culture
The idea of membership has been diluted by consumerism. In a culture that haphazardly promises rewards and perks for everything from groceries to gas, membership comes across as a marketing ploy. This has shifted our understanding of membership language.
The word member can be defined as something essential to the operation and success of a system. For instance, components that hold structures together are essential members of a particular architectural design. They can be support beams that hold entire homes or buildings in place. Biologically speaking, our body parts are members. To lose a body part is painful, and can result in death. To be a member of an entity is to bring strength and vitality to it. But in our consumer culture, these nuances have been lost.
Today membership language often means an optional allegiance, something that’s not fundamental to our lives. “Members who spend $500 this month earn double points!” Consumers join clubs in order to become better consumers. Membership viewed through this lens is cheap and manipulative. No longer does it call us to play our essential role in an organization. Instead, it is a choice based on consumption preferences.
Congregations must transcend consumer language with reminders of the essential role all members play. These communities carry power and divine purpose that makes membership compelling.
Trend #2: Elitism
In our increasingly polarized society, membership often takes on a negative, exclusionary meaning. Membership in some organizations can perpetuate systems of injustice and limit access to resources and power. Social clubs might limit entry based on anything from gender to race to economic status or educational background. Economic and social divides run deep and organizations that offer membership are, understandably, met with suspicion.
This suspicion also plays out across generations. Builders and Boomers are more likely to express their trust in organizations while X-ers and Millennials appear more skeptical of organizational power. They are also less inclined to sign up for a long-term commitment than previous generations. These are generalizations but they have merit and impact the way pastors approach teaching and encouraging membership.
Church membership defies elitism. Rather than serving as a barrier to keep some out and others in, membership serves as a way to serve and invite others in.
Trend #3: Low Commitment
Worshipers tend to choose churches based on what they get out of it rather than what they give to it. This is tied to consumerism. When the music, pastor, or small group program no longer feels exciting, people start looking around for another church. There are plenty to choose from. Why join a church when we might not like it by Christmas?
Many growing churches will confess their increased attendance is the result of “transfer growth,” attracting attendees of other congregations. When a program, preacher, or a parishioner begins to disappoint, rather than engage in the hard work of healthy debate and discussion, many people pack up and move down the street for worship.
Ultimately, church membership is about commitment, sacrifice, and accountability to God and his community. Scripture is clear that all three are holy pursuits. Poorly run membership programs abound, and church history is littered with congregations who abused their power and neglected their most vulnerable members. But such stories should not deter us. Membership is too important to abandon because of past abuses or prevailing cultural trends.
When we welcome new members to our church we remind them that they just signed up for the hard work of serving, loving, and giving to this community. They agreed to struggle through life and faith together. They agreed to support one another and walk through vulnerable and sacred spaces together.
This is a high and holy calling that only the local church can provide. In our increasingly rootless and isolated culture, we need local church membership more than ever before.