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Easy Church Membership Leads to Unengaged Audiences

I have to make a confession.

Years ago, I pushed against what I perceived as difficulty for people to join the local church. It wasn't that I was opposed to membership classes or clarifying belief, it was just that I felt (yeah - pretty weak justification) that membership should be easy. I mean, Jesus didn't offer a required class to people who wanted to follow him, right? He just said "Follow me." That was it. Yet, that wasn't it. To follow Jesus was to abandon all other lords. It was a statement of agreement, submission, and intentional discipleship.

To follow Jesus was much more than just saying "I'm a Christian."

Over time, church membership (especially in the western evangelical world) has become more akin to joining a local club or civic organization. Actually, most churches hold to weaker membership requirements than such groups, so that may not be the best comparison.

I now believe deeply in the necessity of a solid, biblical, systematic membership strategy. At this juncture, it includes a class, but ultimately means much more.

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Why Church Membership Anyway?

This has been a serious question that has come up over the years. Years ago, the response to this question was that in our Baptist church, you cannot vote on anything unless you're a member. To be honest, that's not a compelling reason to join. If that's all membership has going for it, your church likely has deeper issues.

In Mark Dever's book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, he mentions that most church growth strategists minimize the need for membership. He responds this way...

But I think that this topic is a must for our churches, and for us as Christians today. Church membership is a crucial topic for understanding what Christ is calling us to as his disciples. Joining a church will not save us any more than our good works, education, culture, friendships, financial contributions, or baptism will save us. Non-Christians should not seek to join a church, but to learn more about what it means to be a Christian. (p. 159)

Confessing Christians are not meant to live life alone. The journey of faith and the role of the believer in the family of God is vital. Individualistic Christianity is an oxymoron. Salvation in Christ is individual, certainly. In other words, no one can become a Christian for another, but the calling of God's church is unmistakable.

There are numerous reasons for joining a local church. Dever's book is a good start for details and others exist as well. Dever gives wise insight with his five good reasons for joining a church that proclaims and preaches the gospel and models biblical, Christian living.

  1. To assure ourselves of salvation. Don't misread this. Church membership does not save an individual, but the company of believers is useful for assurance of one's salvation.
  2. To evangelize the world. You can and should talk to friends about Christ. You should live as an evangelist, but the truth is that together much more can be done for global evangelism.
  3. To expose false gospels. There are far too many empty-headed teachers of prosperity gospels and the like in our culture today. Most of these live somewhere in your television or online. The messages of feel-good, self-focused, name-it-and-claim-it, therapeutic pseudo-biblical teaching are everywhere. These charlatans are one of the reasons why many have abandoned organized religion, to the detriment of solid gospel-centric fellowships.
  4. To edify the church. This is a huge reason and one often ignored. The onus is not on what the church member gets, but what is given. Edification, or the building up of other believers is the responsibility of all Christians. This often gets lost in the sales pitches offered by local churches. The results are self-centered audiences seeking entertainment. We are all complicit in this.
  5. To glorify God. Ultimately, you should join a church for the glory of God. Peter's words regarding living holy lives before the pagans is key here (1 Peter 2:12). Jesus referenced his church as a glory to the Father. If he said and did so, then so should we. The church exists for God's glory and our good.

Why A Process of Membership?

I removed barriers to church membership in our church years ago. These barriers were ultimately steeped in traditions that I felt were unhealthy and unneeded. I still push against the need to have new members come forward after a service and stand before everyone to be voted upon by the congregation. It seemed to be an embarrassing moment that offered a vote that was more of a formality than anything else. There were no questions about belief, salvation, doctrinal understanding, etc. It was just "Hey everyone, Bob and Sue want to join our church. All in favor, raise your hand." And that was it.

We did implement a new members' class and that was good. We still have the class, but the scheduling has been so haphazard, the class has lost it's value. That, and the fact that no one-on-one time with pastors or leaders occurs leaves new church members with little more than a filled out notebook and good ideas regarding doctrine and theology, but no action steps.

I now see the error of starting, stopping, rebuilding, and re-emphasizing old models and hoping for different results.

More Members Than Attenders

As a pastor who has been a Baptist for as long as I can remember, I know the adage that church attendance in most churches is about half the number of church membership. I grew up just thinking that was normal. I thought that was how things had to be.

You have 300 in attendance? That means you have somewhere between 600 and 800 members, right?

In most cases.

Some of the largest churches in America boast of their membership numbers, but in most cases, the attendance is far below those numbers. Engaged on-mission members are likely even less.

Why be a member of a church you never attend?

That's a legitimate question. I fear that some remain members in order to have access to a free facility for weddings and funerals. Some see their membership as a right, not a privilege. Some may retain their membership for the opportunity to vote in business meetings. Some are simply physically unable to attend regularly due to health reasons.

Should You Have Fewer Members Than Attenders?

This is the question that pushes against the norms. If membership matters, then shouldn't members be engaged? Shouldn't members have roles and responsibilities? What if the church has deadbeat members who do little more than consume resources?

At some point, membership needs to matter. That means a healthy church may actually have far fewer members than attenders weekly. Whether you have fewer members than attenders is debatable, but a stronger, more healthy view of membership, may result in a smaller number of the committed. 

It's easier to draw a crowd than to develop a congregation. 

What Must Be Required of Members?

Believer's baptism is the first step of obedience for a Christian. The New Testament presumes that all Christians have been baptized. That this is up for debate today forces an ignoring of Scriptural teaching. O.C.S. Wallace wrote of believers who refuse to do the simplest step of obedience as Christians back in 1934 and his words ring true today:

The church has not been given authority to make commandments; it is the duty of the church to obey the commandments already made. It is not the prerogative nor the privilege of any church to modify, minimize or in any way obscure ... any commandment, of Jesus Christ.

To reject the ordinances defined in Scripture for the Christian - baptism or the Lord's Supper should disqualify any individual from church membership. 

Beyond adherence to these commands, expectations among believers in a local body should be clearly expressed and delineated so that new members and current members fully understand. These may vary from church to church, but in most cases, an expectation of attendance, participation in the Lord's Supper, prayer, giving, corporate worship, service, agreement with doctrinal statements, and serving faithfully under pastoral leaders.

Now What?

In addition to an implementation of a Membership Covenant, we will be working to set aside time (likely a full weekend) that requires not only a commitment from leadership, but from those seeking membership for fellowship, introduction to doctrine, beliefs, and structure, fellowship with pastors, and opportunities for immediate buy-in and participation in service. 

Our Challenges

One of the great fallacies of churches is the lack of biblical church discipline. Yet, apart from a biblical foundation for church membership, discipline cannot exist. These go hand-in-hand. 

For our local church the challenge will be perceived implementation of a strategy that won't last. This is due to the fact we have started and stopped so many things in the past. We are paying dearly for lack of consistency.

I believe other churches have experienced similar things.

This shift will impact scheduling, staffing, and the process of bringing in new church members.

Yet, it matters and will be worth it.

When membership is attained by simply filling out a card or even walking down an aisle, the propagation of consumer Christianity continues. Membership requires more. The church should expect more.

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