Wait a minute! Don’t touch that dial! “Membership” doesn’t have to be as unexciting as a new vaccine.
I know that many churches don’t have an actual membership. If that describes your congregation and this is a conviction for you, then it’s okay if you change the channel. I’ll understand. I’m not going to use this post to try to talk you into having a membership.
I also know that there are many pastors and churches that practice membership in an unenthusiastic manner:
“Yeah, we have a membership here. What? You mean you actually want to become a member? Well, okay. Let me see what the by-laws say about that.”
And then there was the church I was a part of which had a brochure (remember church brochures?) which said that “At our church we don’t solicit membership.” I had to ask the pastor what that meant. He said that while the church did have a membership role, they were so unenthusiastic about it that they never encouraged anyone to become a member. I later learned that the pastor had ceased to believe in membership but didn’t seek to persuade the church to change the by-laws.
This made all kinds of trouble when we tried to recruit leaders for our ministries – required by our by-laws to be members – from a congregation which had very few actual members.
To compound the problem, since membership was this congregation’s “quality control” mechanism for making sure that attendees who taught the Bible were genuine Christians, persons were typically recruited by way of the “willy nilly,” “if she has a pulse she’s qualified” method.
If you believe in membership, like I do, why not use meaningful membership as a tool, an instrument, to teach and encourage and model what it means to be a real disciple of Jesus?
Allow me to flesh out how this can look in the real world of your church:
(1) I’m not necessarily suggesting that you add a long list of requirements to those you already have for membership. Adding actual requirements to which people are held accountable can create a lot of problems. Do we want to discipline people for not giving or not serving? Most churches do not. You can keep the requirements basic and simple but still get a lot of benefit out of having a meaningful membership.
(2) I am suggesting that you can describe what you are expecting from your members in much the same way that you describe your “ideal,” or “designer” disciple. If your church is going to take disciple-making (God’s mission for your church, Matthew 28:18-20) seriously, at some point you’ll want to have your leaders create a description of the disciples your church is trying to “make.” Once you’ve completed that exercise, why not use that description in preaching, teaching, membership classes, etc.?
(3) You can use the allegory of the body and its members to explain and promote Biblical membership. In Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12-14 the Apostle Paul compares church members to the members (parts) of the human body. All parts are needed and all parts are needful. Teach it, teach it, teach it.
(4) You can use the nature of the local church as a mission on the mission field to explain and promote Biblical membership. Your church is not supposed to be a “religiously flavored” social club is it? Christ designed the local church to be a mission on one particular corner of the mission field, with a global interest and impact, as described in Acts 1:8. Members of your congregation should think of themselves as “members of the mission,” or, in other words: missionaries.
This is a refreshing departure from the concept of a church with many programs and moves us towards the concept of the church in which the people are the programs. Isn’t this what we see in the New Testament? A church with twenty members has twenty “programs” or twenty missionaries with twenty ministries. That doesn’t sound so small does it?
(5) A related concept would be that of the “service organization.” For several years I was a member of a local Lions Club. The club involved a lot of what the group called “fellowship” and a lot of fun, but as a service organization, it existed to serve the community. When you joined you were immediately plugged into a way of serving; there was no membership without service. You joined to serve and give and serving and giving is exactly what you did.
(6) Be consistent and unapologetic about whatever you require membership for. If your church requires membership for the leadership of ministries, board level positions or teaching positions, stick to your guns. If you don’t like your by-laws’ requirements, face the problem honestly and change the by-laws.
(7) Be enthusiastic and upfront about promoting membership. Don’t be bashful about it. As a new Christian I became a member of a church which told me about my membership commitment and its requirements, as a complete surprise, after I was baptized! Years later I was inducted into a church’s membership without even being asked to stand up at a business meeting. It was about as ho-hum as you could get.
On the other hand, one of my favorite churches has every new member candidate up on the platform, introduced by the pastor, reading a covenant together (see below) and prayed for by the elders. Sweet. That is making membership meaningful.
BTW: In a smaller church there’s no reason why the pastor couldn’t talk about each new prospective member briefly, by name, in a Sunday worship service, in a warm, loving, welcoming, pastoral way.
(8) Make full use of a high-quality membership class. A membership class doesn’t have to be long to be meaningful and helpful. Teach the most important aspects of your church’s theology. Teach about your congregation’s polity – it’s way of making decisions. Teach about your church’s opportunities for growth. Don’t forget to teach about the joy and privilege of Christian ministry, which, of course, is for every believer. Don’t forget to teach about the kind of lifestyle which is expected of your members.
And by all means, don’t miss the opportunity provided by this class to (1) get the attendees connected warmly to the church’s pastor or pastors (2) get the attendees connected to each other (3) seek to turn the membership class into a new small group, if this is practicable in your congregation.
In other words, don’t just have a membership class because you have to. Make it sing. Make it ring. Make it warm. And don’t forget the snacks, break times and high-quality coffee. Don’t be afraid to ask one or more of the attendees to help you set up for the class: he/she/they will be blessed to do so.
(9) Make full use of a membership covenant. I’m not suggesting that you come up with something long, complicated, legalistic and off-putting. Make your covenant warm, Biblical, personal, practical, and then use it, use it, use it. Some churches revisit it with the addition of every new member. Some churches recite it every time they celebrate communion. There are excellent newer covenants such as the one popularized by Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church (page 321 in the edition I have), but there are also some great old covenants which border on being poetry, some of which are found in denominational hymnbooks.
(10) Finally, some churches have introduced a concept of membership which involves serving, giving, small group membership and an annual “re-upping” of each person’s membership commitment. An annual letter reminds everyone of the church’s requirements and asks if they would like to re-commit to one more year.
Here’s the bottom line, one more time: If you and the Holy Spirit are taking your church through a revitalization process, or if you simply want to improve an already healthy congregation, you can use your church’s practice of membership to encourage real, Biblical discipleship.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
- What has been our congregation’s practice of membership?
- What has been our congregation’s attitude toward membership?
- Has our congregation’s practice of or attitude toward membership created problems/complications for us, such as those Brian described?
- Would our congregation benefit by making its practice of membership more meaningful?
- What steps would need to be taken to make our membership more meaningful?