Why do we have church membership?

Paul’s blog today reminded me of a conversation I had with someone last week about church membership.

Ever since I was little I never really understood the whole church membership thing. When I asked about it, the typical response was, “People who are members are allowed to vote and it helps keep them committed to the church.”

If that’s all it is, then those seem like pretty lame reasons to me. First, what if someone doesn’t really care if they can place an annual vote on the church budget? Second, if membership is the best way a church maintains commitment, then I suggest the church has far greater issues to address.

I see lots of members who don’t regularly attend church and lots of non-members who are actively involved in the life of the body, so is the membership/commitment thing really working? Do people commit to a membership or to a relationship?

I dunno. Maybe I’m a heretic or I’m missing a key component to all this, but sometimes church membership seems kinda silly to me. I think Paul was right when he said, “My generation in particular seems to feel like church membership is a contrived way to get people to commit to something in a backwards way.” Absolutely. Membership probably carries different connotations for people in my generation than it does for previous ones. To be honest, when I think of membership I think of paying my monthly bill to 24-Hour Fitness for access to their club.

Maybe membership was helpful years ago, but does it have the same affect today? And even more importantly, does it have any counter-productive affects on the upcoming generation? It’s obviously not in scripture, so when do we say, “Ya know, this just isn’t really helpful anymore. Let’s get rid of it.”

Posted on October 13, 2006

  • Jerry

    Maybe it is different for your generation. Maybe your generation just isn’t into commitment as much as previous generations. Most evangelical churches legal documents say the people have the power to decide church issues. The people ‘own’ the church, not the leadership. If there are no people who join, then who ‘owns’ the church legally? The pastor and elders? Those who vote in America must ‘join’ this country for it is our country and we decide by out vote. The church is built on the same principle. As a pastor, when someone commits themself by joining the church, they are saying they can be counted on to be part of this family thru thick and thin and they put themself under the church leadership for counsel, encouragement and even correction if needed. Too many Christians church-hop – shop for the best deal at the moment (just like shopping for a sofa or car). That doesn’t build strong community, which has always been the basis of the church.

  • Tim

    Shane, you're a genius. I think you're exactly right about committing to a relationship instead of to an institution. That's exactly the missing piece to this whole church membership thing for me. I'm still lacking ideas how to effectively implement a "relationship commitment" that 1) doesn't sound corny, and 2) is meaningful both to the church and the individual.

  • Tim

    Yeah, that’s true about the legal aspect of it. Especially in the case of someone suing over church discipline. If they’re a member of the church then they’ve probably signed something where they agree that church discipline can take place and they can even be dismissed from the congregation if necessary. A law suit like that might get pretty sticky if the person isn’t an official member of the church.

  • What might work better for our generation is something closer to a “covenent” membership program. But you would need a better term than that. The idea being that people take steps to learn about the body of believers with whom they are worship and then then make a promise to that body to serve Christ together.
    I think the concept of joining together to serve others isn’t a bad one, but the whole legal concept just doesn’t feel real anymore. I think church membership should be more like sword-brothers swearing oaths to each other to protect and to uphold each other and to go out and rescue those who are being held captive. (can you tell I have been reading Steven Lawhead)
    If we can find a way to make it a commitment to each other instead of a commitment to the institution I think you will find church memebership will become more than just a church letter.

  • What started this for me was a friend who was told not to take communion unless he was a member in good standing in a church. This guy serves on several committees and does our monthly e-newsletter. He pays for it himself! Then our church is in such a financial crisis, that I am about to be laid off because the “members” aren’t serving and giving faithfully. Something is really wrong here.

    My friend can’t understand it, and I can’t really blame him. He has chosen to remain faithful to the church without going through the membership process. He has moved on, but I have a hard time with it, being on leadership at the church. It just rankles. I hope that one day we figure this thing out and that it doesn’t make me want to run from the church.

  • Jerry

    I like Shane's approach to it. So baptism would be a sign of our commitment to Christ and church membership would be a sign of our commitment to other believers? Would you say the commitment to Christ has to be shown first by baptism (of whatever means is chosen)? Could one 'covenant' with your group without first showing that by 'covenanting' with God in baptism?

  • Ann

    Although I am of the generation before yours Tim, one concept that appeals to the Boomers, Busters, and Bridgers is the idea of community. Everyone wants a community where they have a sense of belonging. Starbucks markets their coffeehouses as a place where people can find “community”. Real community involves more than just “hanging out”, but rather requires some form of commitment to the relationship; others have suggested the word, covenant. Regardless, I become a member because I am willing to commit to this community of faith, willing to share in all its hardships and joys together.

    I pick these things up from my roommate Laura, who is working on her ThM and emphasising Emerging Ecclesiology; she writes extensively on these subjects in her blogs, see here
    and here
    I also just attended a seminar held at my church by one of her Talbot professors, Dr. Gary McIntosh, on “One Church, Four Generations.” I highly recommend his book by the same title.

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