Chapter Thirteen – Signing Up
The church was embroiled in controversy. The new pastor had made changes. Some people liked the changes, others didn’t. Many new people had been drawn into the church, and more of them than long-term members were present. It was time to review the pastor’s tenure.
The majority of the newer members (who had been drawn to the church through the pastor’s ministry) wanted him to stay. Some long-term members preferred that he leave. The congregation took a vote of confidence. Many of the newer participants in the church weren’t members and couldn’t vote. The pastor lost the vote and resigned.
What are the implications of church membership in that story? How might the story have turned out differently if membership had been defined differently? What does membership mean?
The Meaning of Membership
The root of the idea of membership is found in Scripture, In 1 Corinthians 12:14-27, and in several other places, the apostle Paul likens the church to a human body. Each person is like one member (part) of the body. Every member of the body of Christ is a member of the church. One can’t live dis-membered any more than a hand or foot can live unattached to the body.
In chapter four, I noted that baptism marks entrance into church membership. In some places in the world, where Christians are despised, baptism and church membership indicate willingness to suffer for Christ.
But in many North American churches, membership is taken lightly. It implies voluntary association with a group. A member in good standing pays dues, obeys the rules, and carries out certain minimum obligations. Is there scriptural precedent for a membership roll comprising those willing to make meaningful commitments as prerequisite for membership? A further look at the apostle Paul’s writing will help answer.
How the Idea of Membership Came to Be
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:1-3).
Apparently after Paul left Corinth to work elsewhere, the church began to doubt his credentials as a true apostle. In the above passage, Paul was apparently responding to a request from the Corinthians that he present a letter of recommendation from the "real apostles" at Jerusalem when he next visited. Paul asserted that he needed no such letter. His true credentials were amply demonstrated in the changed lives of the Corinthians themselves.
Although Paul needed no letter, he wrote them for others. A notable example was written to Philemon, pleading that he receive Onesimus into his household and the church fellowship. And Paul commended Phoebe to the church at Rome.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me (Romans 16:1-2; for other examples, see 1 Cor. 16:3, 10-11; 2 Cor. 7:13-14; Phil. 2:29-30; Col. 4:7-13).
Letters of recommendation are apparently the forerunners of today’s membership letters—written when a person changes church fellowships. These are like the personal references employers usually require. A membership letter indicates good standing in a church fellowship and recommends that the person be received by the other church.
Most churches today don’t request references from a former church. But such a letter could be helpful in two ways. First, a carefully written reference letter might help the new person find a place in the church more quickly. It could validate person’s spiritual gifts and abilities. It could tell about the transferring member’s ministry in the church. Second, a letter of reference could help the receiving church to be aware of special needs.
Contemporary Approaches to Membership
How have churches adopted the idea of membership today? What are the implications of the various approaches to membership? Consider the following three examples:
Dove Fellowship is a relatively new, growing fellowship. It has no membership roll. Any person who gives time, energy, and money is part of the church. A church directory is printed biannually, listing all the persons who regularly meet with one of the church’s many house fellowships.
Group leaders are responsible for pastoral care. If persons drop out of attendance in a small group, and don’t respond to the group leader’s follow-up, their names are dropped from the directory. There are no membership meetings. The pastoral team makes the important ministry decisions, assisted by a group of elders.
At South Hills Community Church, membership in the church is almost synonymous with being a Christian and worshiping regularly with the church. A person fills out a membership card. Then he gives his Christian testimony to an elder appointed to give spiritual oversight. If the elder discerns that the applicant isn’t a Christian, the elder presents the way of salvation. Many persons have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in that setting.
In the early days at South Hills, there was no membership roll. But some newcomers felt a need for formal membership. Consequently, the church decided to simply "grandfather" the entire group of attenders into membership. Whoever signed a card became a member. Now, persons who want to join must go through a membership class. Some exceptions are made for persons already integrated into the fellowship who want to get on with some form of ministry.
In contrast to the first two examples. Communion Fellowship has a decidedly more structured and firm membership policy. To become a member, a person must accept six months’ probation and sign a commitment form. In addition, each prospective member must attend a 12-week Christian basics class, then join a small nurture group.
Membership is reviewed and renewed annually. Any member who doesn’t sign the annual membership renewal covenant is put on probation. This may last up to one year. At that time, a member either signs the membership covenant or is dropped from the roll. Only covenant members in good standing can vote.
Because of different emphases on membership, each of these churches has a different strategy for receiving new people into church membership. Regardless of a congregation’s approach to membership, there should be clear guidelines to help new people become responsible members of the body of Christ.
What should you expect of people who join your church? What are the criteria by which to determine responsible church membership? You may want to consider ten characteristics of responsible membership to evaluate your own expectations of members in your church.1 Responsible church members:
- Grow spiritually. Membership is not the sign of having attained some exalted spiritual state. It’s a way to help Christians keep growing.
- Are faithful in worship attendance. Corporate worship is important for spiritual growth. Irregular worship attendance is a cause for spiritual concern. It generally indicates lack of commitment to the body.
- Have many friendships in the congregation. Body life in the church should naturally lead to lasting friendships. People who develop deep friendships aren’t easily lost to the church.
- Belong to a fellowship group. Unless the church is quite small, a large percentage of new members should find a meaningful place of belonging in a subgroup of the congregation.
- Identify with the body. Members should be able to say, "This is our church." When people use the pronouns we and our instead of they and theirs in referring to the church, they have identified with the body.
- Have roles or tasks appropriate for their spiritual gifts. Healthy churches have a high percentage of their people involved in roles and tasks.
- Identify with the goals of the church. Each local fellowship, under God, should determine a clear goal and direction for ministry. Identifying with the purposes of the church helps bring unity to the body.
- Understand their values. Members should be able to express their own needs and values in the context of the mission of the congregation. Members should be able to freely choose and prize the values for which the church stands.
- Are concerned about stewardship. Members who identify clearly with the goals of the church will give generously of themselves and their possessions to help reach the goals of the church, for the glory of God.
- Bring other people to Christ and the church. Members who are happy about their identification with Christ and the church will want to bring others into the fellowship. Members reluctant to bring others may be hesitant to identify too strongly with the church.
Perhaps these ten characteristics could be viewed as signposts pointing the way to responsible membership for new people who join. There is no better time to share your membership expectations than when new people are wanting to become members.
How Membership Commitment Contributes to Growth
What difference does it make what a church expects of members? Peter Wagner has helpfully explained some of the implications of membership commitment.(note:2)Using two terms originally coined in other contexts, he has shown how different membership policies reflect different values. These in turn affect the growth potential of the church.
Some churches function as a modality. People become members by living in the parish community, in much the same way children go to a school according to their district. And just as a mayor is concerned about the whole population of a city, so church leaders try to minister to the entire parish community. Simply being born into the parish grants members certain rights and privileges. Membership requirements are deemphasized in favor of inclusiveness.
It’s easy for new people to join a church that functions as a modality. However, only a fraction of the membership may be truly involved in congregational life. One may be in, but what that means is unclear. On a given Sunday, there may be as many members absent as present. There is little sense of the gathered body of believers. The church may function as a "service station," where people come when they need something. Europe’s state churches are classic examples.
Other churches function as a sodality. People join by meetings a set of requirements, similar to the way people join a club. Leaders try to minister to the needs of the voluntary membership. Only committed members have the privileges afforded by the church, such as voting. A high value is placed on commitment and inclusiveness is deemphasized.
To join a church that functions as a sodality, potential members must meet certain requirements. Even if they have been faithful members elsewhere, they may be required to attend membership classes. There is a strong sense of in and out. If people don’t feel comfortable making the required commitments, they may feel excluded. But this kind of church often works hard to win outsiders and make them insiders.
Wagner asserts that churches and organizations functioning as sodalities have a much greater growth rate. This is because members are asked to make specific commitments to the church. For many years, Christian sodalities have taken the lead in evangelism. Some of these, such as Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, and Youth With A Mission are well-known examples. Membership on staff implies a high commitment to the cause of evangelism. Persons who don’t agree with stated organizational policy must leave.
Such a strict approach may seem counterproductive, but churches which function this way often attract highly committed people. Wagner cites the example of the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, which grew rapidly as a result of functioning this way.
What kind of commitment should be required to join a church? How do members demonstrate that commitment to each other? The early English Baptists used a covenant which can still be helpful today: "We covenant with God and with each other, to walk in all his ways, known or to be made known to us, according to our best endeavors, whatsoever it shall cost us."
Patrick Baker, a Baptist pastor, will baptize only a person who makes a covenant with a local church. The applicant for baptism must become a member of a local church. So he has the applicant take vows entailing commitment to Christ and spelling out conditions for church membership. Some church leaders will baptize people without clarifying church membership. This can leave members of the body of Christ functioning in limbo.
Many denominations have written membership covenants. Many are long and complex. Because of high mobility, some have found it helpful to renew commitments to the covenant on an annual basis. The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C, is a notable example.
It’s important that any church covenant not be too idealistic or too legalistic. The new covenant God makes with us is based not on laws, but relationship. Church membership should emphasize first of all a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then a relationship with each other in the body of Christ. That’s what it means to be a member!
Because of the many different approaches to membership, there will be different kinds of orientation to the church. Regardless of the definition of membership, churches will do well to provide some formal orientation to the congregation. There are several elements to consider in the development of a meaningful orientation class:
- An informal meeting of new persons to help them get to know one another.
- A series of scriptural lessons which give a basic orientation to the beliefs and teaching of the church.
- A list of opportunities for service in the church. Take the opportunity to encourage a concern for the prosperity of the congregation.
- A time of personal sharing. Have new persons share their religious background, if any, and tell the reasons for their interest in your church. Allow them to share important memories. Ask for any expectations they may have of your church based on what they have experienced.
- A personal profile on each new person, identifying spiritual gifts, special interests, availability for service, and any unique needs.
- An explanation of the history and policy of your church, together with the present purpose and philosophy of ministry. Encourage new persons to ask questions about anything that may be puzzling.
- An explanation of the membership procedures. Help people find their way into the congregation. Prepare them for what it means to join your church.
- A packet of materials to acquaint the new person with the church. This may include the following: A pictorial church directory. A list of available small groups or activities. A brief history of the church. The church constitution and bylaws. A church facility layout plan with indications of uses for each room.
Whatever your plan for orienting new members, communicate the importance of a commitment to both Christ and the church. By making membership meaningful, you can help members experience what it truly means to be part of the body of Christ.
For Review, Study, and Action
- Have you known a situation like the one described at the beginning of this chapter? How might a different approach to membership have changed the situation?
- Discuss the meaning of membership. What emphasis does your church put on membership?
- Discuss the biblical origins of membership. What kind of membership do you suppose the apostle Paul might recommend today?
- Discuss the various approaches to membership. If you were choosing a church, which kind of church would you be most likely to join?
- Discuss the idea of modality and sodality. Where does your congregation fit? What impact does your approach have on the way you welcome new people?
- Review the ten suggested characteristics of responsible members. Which are most important? Should other characteristics be included? How does this list compare with your church^ expectations of new members?
- What do you think of covenant membership? Of annually renewable membership? Does your church or one you know use either approach to membership? If so, how is it working?
- How can the church best keep integrity in church membership? Does membership in your church, if you have membership, really mean what the church says it means?
- How does your church orient new people? How many of the ideas suggested under the section Membership Classes does your church presently use?
For Further Help
A Third Way, by Paul M. Lederach (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1980). This is a stimulating theological study of the church in the Anabaptist tradition. It offers a strong emphasis on the church as an agency of the kingdom of God. Church members are called to be disciples.
The Call to Conversion, by Jim Wallis (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981). Wallis looks at the meaning of conversion in the life of a Christian. The author believes that the meaning of the gospel has been seriously eroded in recent times.